SILVER CITY, N.M.— A new federal plan for managing endangered Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest would expand the areas where wolves could be released and roam, including farther south, east and west in both Arizona and New Mexico. But the plan, released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, makes clear that wolves will not be allowed north of Interstate 40. As documented in a report recently issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, this runs directly counter to a draft recovery plan developed by a team of expert scientists in 2012, which determined that establishing additional populations in Grand Canyon National Park and northern New Mexico is critical to the ultimate recovery of Mexican wolves.
“We’re particularly glad that Mexican gray wolves will now be able to be released directly into the excellent habitat in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, hopefully providing a needed infusion of new animals into the population,” said Michael Robinson of the Center. “But the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to listen to the science and get Mexican gray wolves into the Grand Canyon and northern New Mexico.”
Unfortunately the new plan, released as “final environmental impact statement,” will also give the Service great latitude to issue permits to private landowners or their agents, state agencies — as well as federal agents from Wildlife Services — to harass or kill wolves, including even for eating too many of their natural prey of deer and elk.
“We’re disappointed that despite the fact that killings of Mexican wolves — both legal and illegal — have hampered recovery, Fish and Wildlife is still handing out permits to kill more,” said Robinson. “This appears to be more about appeasing those who fear and abhor wolves than it is about rational, science-based management, underscoring the fact that despite three recovery teams being formed over nearly 20 years, the Service still doesn’t have a valid Mexican wolf recovery plan.”
The environmental impact statement was developed in the absence of a recovery plan for the Mexican wolf that could have provided recovery goals and a scientific foundation for decision making. The Center for Biological Diversity and allies filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month to compel finalization of a recovery plan; a 2012 draft recovery plan calls for growth of the wolf population to more than 750 wolves that would live in three connected subpopulations, including in areas north of Interstate 40, where wolves would be banned under the new rule.
The new rule, subject to a final one-month comment period, is the first revision in management of Mexican wolves since 2000, two years after their reintroduction began in 1998, when the Service authorized releases of wolves captured from the wild into the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The new rule would allow releases of captive-bred wolves into the Gila and portions of the Cibola (New Mexico) and Sitgreaves (Arizona) national forests, and would allow wolves to roam from the border with Mexico north to Interstate 40 in New Mexico and Arizona, but no farther.
“We’re relieved that Mexican wolves will be allowed to roam more widely and will be introduced directly into New Mexico,” said Robinson. “But increasing the authority to kill them will undo all the good in this new rule and further imperil them.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service also proposes to grant broad authority to state agencies to kill wolves, including for “unacceptable impacts” to herds of elk or deer.
“Wolves are the engine of evolution, honing the alertness of deer and the strength of elk that evolved with them over thousands of years,” said Robinson. “Trapping and shooting wolves to protect their prey harkens back to a prescientific world view, and it is disturbing to see in our government in 2014.”
At last count in January, only 83 Mexican wolves survived in the Southwest, including a mere five breeding pairs. Scientists have shown that inbreeding caused by a lack of wolf releases to the wild, coupled with too many killings and removals of wolves, is causing smaller litter sizes and lower pup-survival rates in the wild population. Expanding wolf releases to New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, in particular, would enable managers to diversify the population through new releases and diminish inbreeding.