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Column: Wolf recovery planning keeps hitting roadblocks

Albuquerque Journal – October 19, 2015 - Speak up for Mexican gray wolves

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By Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer - Las Cruces Bureau

It’s a strange moment when opposing sides of a highly polarized issue start calling for the same thing. That’s happening in the debate over Mexican gray wolves.

Both wolf advocates and those who oppose reintroduction of the endangered lobo want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt a recovery plan that would serve as a road map for the wolf’s survival and eventual removal from the endangered species list.

It’s been 33 years since the original recovery plan was written in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president, the World Wide Web didn’t exist and Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was climbing the charts.

The original plan was supposed to endure just two years.

Since then, the service has convened recovery teams on three separate occasions: in the early 1990s, early 2000s and again in 2011. The first and last teams produced draft plans in 1995 and 2012 that set population targets for wild-roaming wolves.

All three efforts fell apart or were discontinued by Fish and Wildlife. Why did the agency never finish the task?

The most recent effort offers a clue.

I reviewed a 149-page document written by the recovery team in 2012, an unfinished plan watermarked “DRAFT.”

The team included 34 scientists, wolf advocates, program critics and representatives of federal, state and local governments. Academia, cattle growers’ associations, wildlife groups, county associations, tribal liaisons, game departments – everyone was at the table.

Everyone was at the table but not everyone was doing the writing.

The Endangered Species Act requires Fish and Wildlife to use the “best available commercial and scientific information” in developing a recovery plan, and the scientists on the team – hailing from the University of Montana, Michigan Technological University, Mexico’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, the Department of the Interior, Arizona Game and Fish and Turner Endangered Species Fund – came up with the recovery targets.

The team recommended removing the Mexican gray wolf from the endangered species list when:

~ At least three separate wild populations of Mexican gray wolves – numbering at least 750 animals in total – had survived for two successive generations, or about eight years.

~ The geographically separate populations showed interconnectivity, or migration between them.

~ The overall population trend was stable or increasing.

A majority of the members hadn’t seen the draft when it was leaked to one of the delegations, said Howard Hutchinson, executive director of the Coalition of Arizona and New Mexico Counties, who sat on the recovery team.

“All hell broke loose when someone shared a copy of the draft,” he said. “When that occurred, there was a breach in the internal dialogue and the Fish and Wildlife Service basically put the skids on.”

Sherry Barrett, the agency’s Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator, contends the latest recovery plan effort was put on hold to redirect staff to write the current management rule – a process forced by litigation brought by environmental groups.

But she also told me that the 2012 document “was released to the public by somebody prematurely. It had never been reviewed by the regional director. It was a very preliminary draft.”

The goal of 750 wolves in the wild is more than double the number targeted by the current management rule, which sets a goal of 325 wild lobos – more wolves than many opponents can stomach and fewer wolves than advocates say are necessary to improve the fragile genetics of the wild population. The 1982 plan had targeted 100 wolves in the wild but its authors acknowledged that wasn’t a recovery goal, just a high bar to set at a time when just seven wolves were being bred to keep the species from extinction.

The new management rule, implemented in February, widened the wolf habitat in New Mexico from a southwest corner to the whole southern swath between Interstate 40 and the Mexican border, from California to Texas – recognizing that not all of that encompasses suitable wolf habitat.

While both sides are clamoring for a new recovery plan – and suing Fish and Wildlife to get one – it’s unlikely that any plan would equally satisfy advocates of the program and those who oppose it, if the 2012 plan is anything to go by.

Barrett noted that the agency’s goal isn’t to appease all parties.

“In the end, what we want is a scientifically valid recovery plan that shows the point in which the wolf no longer needs protection under the Endangered Species Act,” she said.

A coalition of environmental groups and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have both asked the courts to force the service to write a new plan.

New Mexico Game and Fish recently sent the service a 60-day notice of intent to sue Sept. 1, the service told me. Last week, the New Mexico agency said it was “evaluating its options” after the federal agency said it would go ahead with wolf releases in New Mexico even after the Game Commission denied the agency permits to do so – stating that it was doing so because of the lack of a recovery plan.

Barrett says Fish and Wildlife is reconvening some of the members of the team that drafted the unfinished 2012 plan. They’ll meet in December, she said, and the new target for a final plan is late 2017.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at lvillagran@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

This column was published in the Albuquerque Journal.


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Please help endangered Mexican gray wolves 
with a letter to the editor today!

The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers.  Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don't try to include all of the points below. Your letter will be effective if you keep it brief and focus on a few key points.

Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points

  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been stalling on a science-based recovery plan for over 40 years; the agency must move forward with the release of a draft plan based on the work of the science planning subgroup for public review now.
  • A projected timeline of 2-3 years for a Mexican wolf recovery plan is unacceptable. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has for several years been sitting on a plan already drafted by scientific experts because it outlines changes necessary for recovery that have met with political resistance from state agencies hostile to wolf recovery.
  • At last official count, only 109 Mexican gray wolves were found in the wild, making them one of the most endangered wolves in the world.
  • The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. Many more wolves should be released from the hundreds in captive breeding programs.
  • For over 3 decades, captive breeding programs in the U.S. and Mexico have worked to maximize genetic diversity so that captive wolves could be released in Arizona and New Mexico to increase the wild population’s genetic health.
  • Wolves are a benefit to the West and are essential to restoring the balance of nature.
  • Scientists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams – just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
  • Mexican gray wolves are unique native animals. They are the rarest, most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America and the most endangered wolf in the world.
  • Wolves generate economic benefits - a University of Montana study found that visitors who come to see wolves in Yellowstone contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy.
  • The livestock industry has a responsibility to share public lands with wolves and other wildlife. Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses and there are many tried and true methods to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves.
  • The wolves do need a “genetic rescue plan” immediately.  Such a scientific plan will involve releasing more wolves, as well as cross-fostering.
  • There are proven ways to lessen conflicts between wolves and livestock , and most wolves stay out of trouble.
Make sure you:
  • Thank the paper for publishing the article.
  • Submit your letter as soon as possible. The chance of your letter being published declines after a day or two since the article was published.
  • Do not repeat any negative messages from the article, such as “so and so said that wolves kill too many cows, 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 150-250 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, address, phone number and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.
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Do MORE to help Mexican wolves

You can also write a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service urging them to stop stalling and move forward with a valid Mexican gray wolf recovery plan now.

Everything that you need, including talking points, contact info and a sample letter can be found HERE.

Thank you for giving Mexican wolves a voice!

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