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Blog: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

New rules fail to ensure recovery for endangered wolves

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Back in November, Defenders filed a lawsuit to spur the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to complete a recovery plan for the struggling Mexican gray wolf population. Over the past 39 years, the agency has failed to create a much-needed blueprint for recovery for this species. Making matters worse, FWS recently released a new rule governing how these wolves can be managed. A rule that will continue to make it impossible for the Mexican gray wolf to recover.

Mexican gray wolves (or lobos) are smaller, desert-adapted subspecies of gray wolves. Lobos were completely extinct in the wild by the mid-1970s, reduced to only 7 individuals in captivity. The species was reintroduced to the wild in 1998 with a “prime objective” of reaching 100 individuals by 2006. But 100 wolves was always intended as a first step back from extinction, not a final recovery goal. For 15 years, aggressive wolf removals, not enough wolf releases, and political foot dragging caused the population to limp along, falling far short of even this unambitious target. Now, for the first time since their brush with extinction, there are 109 lobos in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico (and fewer than 10 in Mexico). This is good news, but wolves need more than just numbers to overcome problems from lack of genetic diversity and recover their rightful place in the Southwest landscape.

One of the primary reasons the Mexican gray wolf population is struggling stems from FWS’ foot-dragging in completing a legally valid recovery plan. Without this important road map, there have been too few wolves released into the wild and too many wolves killed or removed, which has led to inbreeding and genetic problems. Although the recently revised rule does expand the area where lobos can roam, it also:

• Caps the population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest at numbers too low for recovery
• Bans them from the best suitable habitat in the Grand Canyon region and southern Colorado
• Makes it easier for these endangered wolves to be legally killed.

Issuing a new rule on how to manage these wolves before a recovery plan is even in place is just plain backwards. An architect would never expect to build a working house without first making a blueprint, so it’s no wonder this new rule is one step forward and two steps back.

The ideal recovery plan would include recommendations from the agency’s hand-picked recovery team. Experts on that team have already stated that for Mexican gray wolves to survive, they need lower human-caused mortality, more wolves, and two more populations with more wolves in the Grand Canyon area, as well as southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. They’ve also said that wolf numbers need to increase to at least 750 for lobos to have a fighting chance. But under the new rule, these things would be impossible.

Because the new rule did not rely on the best science, and because recovery is specifically impossible under the rule, Defenders is challenging this new rule in court. What needs to happen, and what we hope our challenge will encourage, is for the FWS to first complete a legally and scientifically viable recovery plan, and then revise the new management rule in line with scientific recommendations, instead of against them.


This blogpost was published by Defenders of Wildlife on February 17, 2015.

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Photo credit: Amber Legras

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