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Op-Ed: Michael J. Robinson: Will science or politics determine wolves' future

Las Cruces Sun-News, August 11, 2014

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This spring, a radio-collared pair of Mexican gray wolves, a male and female, moved dozens of miles from the Gila National Forest north to the El Malpais National Monument. In accordance with the 1998 federal rule that authorized the reintroduction of their kind, they were quickly hauled into captivity.

Their crime was living beyond their designated recovery area consisting of the Gila and Apache national forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, respectively.

The Mexican wolf is the only endangered species in the country that is required by regulation to stay within politically-derived boundaries, a line circumscribing two national forests as well as the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch east of the Gila. Elsewhere, even on public lands, they must be removed.

After 13 years of scientists criticizing this arbitrary regulation as unnecessarily hindering recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now proposing to allow wolves to live in an area around 15 times as large as presently permitted.

The Service also proposes to allow wolves to be released from captive-breeding facilities into the Gila and elsewhere where releases of captive-bred wolves are forbidden today.

That brings us back to the El Malpais wolves. This summer, they were released into the Gila (since they were not captive-bred but rather had been in the wild before), denominated the "Lava Pack," and quickly split apart. That they went their separate ways is good news: because they're first cousins; they'd be better off with someone else.

And that highlights one the biggest challenges facing the 83 Mexican wolves currently living in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona — they are inbred, a consequence of high mortality and few releases. Unrelated wolves are few and far between. Inbreeding is correlated with smaller litters of pups and fewer pups maturing to adulthood.

Under current regulations, wolves from captivity, with critical new DNA, can only be released in 16 percent of the recovery area — entirely within Arizona where wolves have already established territories which they'll defend from other wolves.

The proposal to allow new releases on millions of acres of the Gila and other remote habitats teeming with deer and elk would help save the Mexican wolf from inbreeding.

But other provisions in the federal proposal would increase mortality despite scientists urging that already-high rates of wolf killing and live-removal to captivity be decreased.

The proposal includes provisions to expand existing loopholes and create new ones to allow more killing of wolves by the federal and state governments and by citizens. For example, wolves would be removed upon determination by state game agencies that they are having an "unacceptable impact" on elk or deer.

Wolves would not be allowed to establish territories north of Interstate 40 in important recovery-habitat in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains.

Wolves from Mexico, where a reintroduction program that began in 2011 has finally resulted in pups born this spring, would lose their protections as fully endangered and be designated as "experimental, non-essential" if they cross into the United States.

Fortunately, one of the alternatives in a draft environmental impact statement would include the two science-based reforms but exclude most provisions to increase wolf trapping and killing. That's a good start, but doesn't address other longstanding problems.

Alternative 3 in the draft EIS with these changes would help these struggling wolves recover:
— Allow wolves to establish territories north of I-40 and in Texas.
— Keep wolves from Mexico and their progeny in the U.S. fully protected.
— Require livestock owners to take responsibility for removing or rendering inedible (through lime for example) the carcasses of non-wolf-killed stock, in order to help prevent depredations.
— Re-designate the wolves as "experimental essential," which would afford them greater legal protection.

Wolves are beautiful, intelligent, social animals that are vital to the balance of nature. Yet, after years of half-hearted recovery efforts, the Mexican gray wolf, uniquely adapted to our small corner of the world, remains on the brink of extinction.

With the right modifications, Alternative 3 offers an important opportunity for us to begin the process of finally ending decades of mistreating Mexican wolves.

With rampant inbreeding and only five breeding pairs currently living in the wild, it's essential that we act now, not later.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a public hearing on its proposed rule-change and alternatives at the Civic Center, 400 West Fourth Street, Truth or Consequences, from 6 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, August 13. To sign up to speak, you must fill out and turn in a form by 5:45 p.m.

Michael Robinson works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City and is author of "Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West" (University Press of Colorado).

This Op-Ed was published in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

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Endangered Mexican Wolves Need Your Help!
With fewer than 90 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to make changes that could push them closer to extinction or finally help them thrive. The decision will be made in the next few months and they need to hear from you!

Submit a letter to the editor responding to this article and influence decision-makers and thousands of your fellow citizens. Tips and talking points are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.

Talking points
  • Start by thanking the paper for publishing this op-ed.
  • To help restore balance, USFWS should move forward with allowing new wolves to be released throughout the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The Mexican gray wolf is the most endangered mammal in the U.S. with only about 83 in the wild. Additional wolves must be released into the wild now to increase the genetic health of the species. Numerous wolves are in captive breeding facilities around the country, prepared for, and awaiting, release.
  • Wolves once lived throughout New Mexico and Arizona and played a critical role in keeping the balance of nature in place. We need to restore this important animal that has been missing for too long.
  • People who care about wolves have an important opportunity to speak out for their recovery in August. US Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a hearing in Truth or Consequences, NM on August 13th on the future of critically endangered Mexican gray wolves. More information can be found at mexicanwolves.org.
  • Wolves need freedom from boundaries. Given room to roam, the wolves will establish themselves in suitable areas with adequate game. USFWS must change the rules that do not allow wolves to establish new packs and populations in additional areas that are essential to their recovery. Capturing and moving wolves because they roam beyond an artificial boundary is always a risky business that can result in death or trauma to the wolf. 
  • The USFWS should designate Mexican gray wolves as essential. By labeling all of the wild wolves as “nonessential” the USFWS ignores science and the reality of 16 years of experience with reintroducing wolves. The 83 wolves in the wild have up to four generations of experience in establishing packs and raising pups and are over 22% of all of the Mexican wolves in the world. The fourth generation wild lobos are not expendable and are essential to recovering this unique subspecies of wolf. 
  • The USFWS needs to quit stalling and complete a comprehensive recovery plan. USFWS admits that their 1982 recovery plan is not scientifically sound and does not meet current legal requirements – yet in its proposed rule USFWS continues to emphasize a woefully inadequate population of only 100 wolves in the wild.
Make sure you:
  • Thank the paper for publishing the article.
  • Do not repeat any negative messages from the article, such as “cows may have been killed by wolves, but…” Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article.
  • Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words.
  • Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”
  • Provide your name, email address, phone number and address. The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE USFWS PROPOSAL AND
UPCOMING HEARINGS
, CLICK HERE.
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