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Guest Column: Mexican gray wolves need rescuing from politics

Albuquerque Journal – Michael Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity – June 9, 2016

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This spring saw two steps forward for securing the future of the endangered Mexican gray wolves.

Two captive-born pups were introduced into a wild wolf family in the Gila National Forest in late April. And the same week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally agreed to complete a legally required Mexican wolf recovery plan.

But the agreement, submitted to a court almost 40 years to the day after Mexican wolves were protected under the Endangered Species Act, came only because a lawsuit by conservationists forced the agency to follow the law.

Now, two new developments highlight why it’s critical that the upcoming recovery plan – as well as current wolf management – be anchored in science, not politics.

First, a court will soon decide whether to grant the request of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to order removal of the new pups in the Gila and to enjoin future wolf releases.

And in the meantime, in late May, federal trappers captured yet another Mexican wolf.

The circumstances surrounding removal of one of only 97 wolves living in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona reflect an issue central to the recovery effort: requiring reasonable steps to deter wolves from becoming habituated to livestock.

The trapped wolf – a new father – typically preyed on elk. When he turned his attention toward cattle, it wasn’t some arbitrary change in dietary preferences – he was drawn to an area littered with carcasses of cows that died not from wolf attacks, but from other causes.

Although scientists emphasize eliminating scavenging opportunities, in the politically tangled geometry of Mexican wolf management, when scavenging contributes to wolves preying on livestock, ranchers are reimbursed for their losses and wolves get punished.

This imbalance stems from the lack of a requirement – like one in the rule that guided the successful reintroduction of gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains – stipulating that stock owners must not leave carcasses accessible to wolves.

Although scientists developed draft recovery plans calling for three Mexican wolf populations in the Southwest – including the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies – the service repeatedly shut down further planning.

Now, pending court approval of the agreement, the agency must finalize a recovery plan by Nov. 30, 2017.

Meanwhile, management should change. The Mexican wolves recently declined by 12 percent, from 110 in 2014 to 97 in 2015, and breeding pairs declined from eight to six.

In the 18 years since reintroduction, the federal government has shot 14 wolves and captured dozens more. Of those captured, 21 wolves were killed accidentally, including two this year.

As a result, wild wolves in the Southwest suffer from inbreeding, leading to fewer pups being born.

And scientists caution that “cross-fostering” – the practice of adding pups born in captivity to wolf families in the wild – fails to meet the urgent need to rapidly diversify the population – the new pups won’t breed for at least two years – and to broaden its distribution. The new pups should have been released with their parents and older siblings, but the service considered that too politically fraught.

Immunizing wolf-management polices from politics should be a key role for the upcoming recovery plan, which should examine dispassionately what types of releases work best.

Before the recent release in New Mexico and similar cross-fostering of four pups into Arizona, the Obama administration had released just four captive-bred wolves. Three died and the fourth was recaptured.

Even as federal officials were negotiating the recovery plan settlement agreement, they were meeting behind closed doors with officials in four states working to limit the number and distribution of wolves under the plan.

The service should extricate itself from state politics driven by the livestock industry, stop removing wolves from the wild, release five or more family packs into the Gila as scientists recommend, and write a recovery plan that will ensure the Mexican gray wolf contributes to the natural balance in the Southwest and Mexico forever.

This Guest Column was published in the Albuquerque Journal.

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Show your support for 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal and moral obligation to follow the best available science and do what is needed to recover endangered Mexican gray wolves in spite of politically motivated state opposition.
  • At last official count, only 97 Mexican gray wolves were found in the wild, making them one of the most endangered wolves in the world. The wild population declined 12% since last year’s count.
  • The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only one new family from the hundreds of wolves in captive breeding programs is entirely inadequate to the need for genetic rescue. At least five new families should be released this year. The Service’s plan is actually passive-aggressive, pretending to help the wolves but again giving in to the states.
  • Cross-fostering of pups is a risky and complex experimental technique. Opportunities for doing this successfully are extremely rare. At best, the Fish and Wildlife Service may be able to get a few new pups into wild packs. At worst, pups introduced into packs they were not born into may be killed or abandoned. A scientific genetic rescue plan will involve releasing many more adult wolves, not just cross-fostering.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service should stop letting anti-wolf state officials obstruct wolf recovery.  The last effort to create a Mexican wolf recovery plan stalled precisely because the states were given opportunities to weigh in before the work of the scientific experts was released for public comment. The most recent recovery planning process, which began in 2011, ended amidst allegations of political interference by these same states with the science.
  • For almost 4 decades, captive breeding programs in the U.S. and Mexico have worked to maximize genetic diversity so that captive wolves could be released to increase the wild population’s genetic health. But USFWS has released very few of these wolves.  Only four new wolves have been released in the past eight years and only one family will be released in 2016, after a 12% decline in the wild population.
  • 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. Most wolves stay out of trouble.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In a 2013 poll of registered voters, 87% of New Mexicans agreed that “wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.”  80% of New Mexicans agreed that “the US Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help wolves recover and prevent extinction.”  In thinking about wolf reintroduction, 73% of New Mexicans supported restoring wolves to the Grand Canyon region and northern New Mexico.

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 150-350 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 FOR WOLVES

Tell US Fish and Wildlife Service not to let anti-wolf state officials obstruct Mexican wolf recovery.


A sample message is below-remember that it will be most effective written in your own words, from your own experience.

Dear Secretary Jewell,

Mexican gray wolves are important to me and the majority of voters, and their recovery can help restore ecological health to our wildlands. Only four wolves have been released into the wild since 2009 and this year, the wild population declined for the first time in six years, from 110 wolves last year to only 97.
The longer the wild population goes without new releases, the worse the problems will become, requiring even more wolf releases in the future.

Instead of allowing political interference by the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, the US Fish and Wildlife Service must expedite the release of adults and families of wolves from captivity and must move forward with  the draft recovery plan based on the work of the science planning subgroup.

Obstruction by anti-wolf special interests and politics has kept this small population of unique and critically endangered wolves at the brink of extinction for too long and can no longer be allowed to do so.  Development of a new recovery plan and expedited releases that will together address decreased genetic health and ensure long-term resiliency in Mexican wolf populations must move forward without delay or political interference.


Sincerely,

[Your name and address]


You can make your letter more compelling by talking about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you.  If you’re a camper or hiker wanting to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.

Please email your letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

You can also copy your email to your members of congress, whose contact information can be found here. Include your full name, address, and phone number.

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Thank you for speaking on behalf of these important animals who cannot speak for themselves.