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In the News: Arizona lawmakers want control of endangered Mexican gray wolves

Arizona Republic – August 12, 2016 - Your Letters Are Needed!

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State argues that it would do better by the wolves than the federally run program has done; wildlife advocates disagree.

For two decades Arizona has partnered with federal biologists and spent $3 million to help recover Mexican gray wolves that were previously eliminated from the wild.

For about as long, state officials have checked federal ambitions for adding wild wolf packs. They have demanded limits on wolf habitat zones and backed a population cap that some observers say would doom the subspecies.

So can the state be trusted with the keys to recovery of the gray wolves?

Some Republican lawmakers say Arizona would do better by the wolves than a federally run program, which has spent more than $25 million since the late 1990s. They are pushing legislation that would effectively remove federal Endangered Species Act protections and entrust the wolves to Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.

The move comes in a year when the slowly rebounding population took a dive, when wolf supporters say they need more protections from poachers and other threats, not less.

The lawmakers seeking change complain about the burden wolves place on rural ranchers, but they also insist the wolf would be better off without the federal bureaucracy.

"The Mexican gray wolf is no better off today than it was 20 years ago," said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz, who sponsored a budget amendment to defund the federal wolf program.

It passed the House this summer but faced debate in the Senate and a possible veto if it passes there.

"The wolf is going to die unless something changes," Gosar said.

Another effort, a Senate bill (S.2876) that Arizona's two Republican senators are backing, would force greater state and ranch-industry influence on a new recovery plan and cap the number of wolves allowed.

Proponents say the wolves — 97 at last count — kill livestock in the two states and that government compensation is spotty and inadequate.

A mixed record

Wolf advocates say the states have had their way in the past, with deadly consequences for wolves.

"It's really disingenuous" to say the states will save wolves, said Michael Robinson, a New Mexico-based wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"It's true that the federal government has done a poor job of recovering wolves, but that's in large part because the federal government has followed Arizona's direction and continues to follow Arizona's direction in removing wolves from the wild."

In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to create a management committee that gave the states equal footing in decision-making.

That, Robinson argued, led to procedures that were too quick to remove wolves from the wild when they bothered cattle. His group and others sued to stop it. They won a settlement six years later, but the damage to the population was clear in the numbers, he said.

The fledgling, captive-bred population that was returned to the wild in 1998 accelerated from zero to 55 by 2003, but then sputtered. The numbers fell back to as few as 35 by 2005.

The government still isn't releasing enough wolves to grow the population and increase genetic diversity in the wild, Robinson said, but that's because the states don't want more.

A deadly year

The wolves never broke 60 until after the court settlement. Then the population grew to 110 by 2014. The number fell back below 100 last winter after a year in which biologists said unsolved illegal shootings rose and 11 were listed "unknown."

"The problems in the wolf program stem from the Fish and Wildlife Service complying with the demands of state authorities who don't have the wolves' interests at heart," Robinson said.

The states have guided where and how many captive wolves the government could release into the wild and recently have pushed back against scientists' suggestions that the predators need more room — perhaps around the Grand Canyon or southwestern Colorado.

State wildlife managers have insisted that the reintroduced wolves remain south of Interstate 40, in the zones where they are known to have roamed before they were shot and trapped out of the state in the past century.

Recovery "needs to occur in the historical (wolf) range, south of the Mogollon Rim and into central Mexico," said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

The governor-appointed Arizona Game and Fish Commission, which sets state wildlife policy, three years ago backed another congressional effort to remove federal wolf protections and favored a population goal of 100. Commission Chairman Pat Madden said this week that he hasn't seen the latest legislation but supports the idea of more state control.

Wolf advocates say 100 isolated wolves would not be self-sustaining over the long term. They often point to a Fish and Wildlife Service science team's recommendation for 750 wolves spread among three separate populations connected by intact migration paths.

A Mexican solution?

Robinson said he's unaware of any Arizona laws that would protect wolves if they weren't subject to federal protections.

DeVos disagreed, noting that the commission controls hunting seasons and has not opened a season on wolves.

"The state can manage wolves effectively," he said.

Gosar and others have argued that most of the historical range was in Mexico, so most of the recovery effort should happen there.

Others, including Defenders of Wildlife, say most of that Mexican habitat is gone.

"It's mostly built out" in Mexico, which lacks big expanses of public lands, said Eva Sargent, Southwest representative for Defenders. Wolves need more habitat than they're currently allotted, she said, and it's no good looking to Mexico for it.

"That's a gamble on extinction," she said.

DeVos said Game and Fish has participated in a research project that will soon show there is adequate habitat and prey in Mexico.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday confirmed that the agency has no plans to expand wolf recovery north of I-40, but said officials would not comment on pending legislation.

The Mexican subspecies, a smaller cousin of the wolves now flourishing in the northern Rocky Mountains, was hunted and trapped to extinction in the wild by the 1970s. A captive-breeding program starting with seven wolves eventually led to reintroduction in the mountain forests of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

A goal to delist

Gosar's budget amendment, co-sponsored by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., is in an Interior Department appropriations bill – (H.R. 5538) that contains other amendments challenging federal environmental rules that may be unacceptable to the White House.

The Senate bill takes a different approach. It would:

  • Require a recovery plan that caps the number of wolves at a level approved by ranchers and other private interests.

  • Prohibit Mexican wolves north of I-40.

  • Offer the states the lead in managing wolves.

Sen. Jeff Flake's ultimate intention is to take the wolf off of the endangered-species list.

"The Mexican gray wolf should be delisted and should stay delisted," Flake said in a written statement. "With the livelihoods of rural Arizonans at stake, it's imperative that we advance a solution that cannot be reversed by a federal judge when it is inevitably challenged in court."

The best option is a recovery plan that reflects the will of affected states and people, he said.

Sen. John McCain's office did not respond to requests for comment, though Flake lists him as a co-sponsor.

Sargent called the legislative efforts at state control a "hostile takeover of the Mexican gray wolf program," because polls have consistently shown strong support for wolves in both Arizona and New Mexico.

She pointed to a 2013 Tolchin Research poll indicating that more than two-thirds of voters and a majority of Republicans in both states favored restoring Mexican gray wolves to suitable habitats.

"Any of these politicians would love to be as popular as Mexican wolves," Sargent said.

This article was published in the Arizona Republic.

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Show your support for Mexican 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

  • Bills or riders aimed at stripping endangered wolves of federal protections put more than wolves in peril - they threaten all wildlife and the Endangered Species Act itself.
  • The Gosar/Pearce Amendment is a Mexican wolf extermination bill. If passed, neither Arizona nor New Mexico will provide wolves any real protection.
  • 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 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.
  • Since the Mexican wolf reintroduction began, there has always been funding and programs available, via Defenders of Wildlife, the states, or the federal government, to help ranchers cover losses or avoid problems.  Many ranchers have learned to ranch in the presence of wolves, and see them as just another part of working on the land.
  • The science is clear that the Mexican gray wolf is far from recovered and must remain protected under the Endangered Species Act – with such low numbers, losing Endangered Species Act protections would lead to extinction of the wild lobo.
  • 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.
The states of Arizona and New Mexico are hostile to Mexican wolf recovery and cannot be trusted with the future of these highly endangered animals. 
  • During the period from 2003 to 2009, when the Mexican wolf reintroduction program was controlled by a commission led by Arizona Game and Fish, the wild population declined from 55 wolves to only 42 wolves and 2 breeding pairs in the wild. It was only after the US Fish and Wildlife Service resumed control of the program that the population numbers began to rise.
  • Under AZ Game and Fish Department’s management, many individual wolves and even whole families of wolves were routinely killed and removed over livestock conflicts, with no regard for their genetic value, under standard operating procedure 13. Arizona Game and Fish has been very clear that it will bring back policies like these and further loosen restrictions on killing endangered wolves.
The recovery of the lobo has strong public support in Arizona and New Mexico and those who represent us in Congress should vigorously oppose legislation that removes endangered species protections of Mexican wolves.
  • Public polling continues to show overwhelming support for wolf recovery in Arizona and New Mexico.
  • In a 2008 poll of registered voters, 77 % of Arizonans and 69% of New Mexicanssupported “the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into these public lands in Arizona and New Mexico.”
  • In a 2013 poll of registered voters, 87% of both Arizonans and New Mexicans agreed that “wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.”  83% of Arizonans and 80% of New Mexicans agreed that “the US Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help wolves recover and prevent extinction.”
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 150-200 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.”
  • Urge your fellow citizens to urge their representatives in Congress to oppose this bill.
  • 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.