The slogan spotted on signs outside New Mexico Game Commission meetings, on bumper stickers around the state and quoted by conservationists reads: More wolves, less politics.
Whether that’s what conservationists find when the US Fish and Wildlife Service releases a long-awaited recovery plan for Mexican gray wolves remains to be seen. A federal district court judge signed off this month on a settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed against the federal wildlife management agency over the ongoing absence of a formal recovery plan for this most rare subspecies of wolf. Now the agency has a deadline of Nov. 30, 2017 for completing that plan.
“We hope this is a turning point in the race to save the Mexican wolf—a unique, beautiful animal of the American Southwest—from extinction,” Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement issued shortly after the court decision was announced on Oct. 18.
For 40 years, Mexican wolves have hovered in a sort of recovery limbo—an endangered species managed as an “experimental population.” That designation extended more flexibility to land managers on behalf of ranchers to remove and kill wolves when they interfered with or killed cattle, but conservationists argue the leeway has given too much room to the livestock industry and leaves wolves at risk of extinction. Both sides have called for an updated plan for how the species is managed, but the process has stalled out often over state objections and disagreements over how to deploy, as the Endangered Species Act mandates, the “best available science.”
The plan is subject to an independent peer review before its completion, and plaintiffs, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Endangered Wolf Center and the states of Arizona and Utah, will be updated every six months between now and the deadline, according to the settlement terms. The public will also have a chance to review the plan before it’s finalized. The state of New Mexico had at one point joined the list of plaintiffs, but dropped out of the settlement, calling the deadline too hasty.
“Recovery of the Mexican wolf remains our goal,” reads the official response from the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We aim to support natural wild wolf population growth and improve population genetics, eventually leading to species recovery and state management of the species.”
Mexican wolves were nearly wiped out in the 20th century during the decades-long campaign to rid the West of predators that threatened cattle ranchers. Over the nearly two decades since Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the American Southwest in 1998, population growth has inched forward and now faces a crisis, while public lands ranchers continue to come into conflict with wolves that turn to cattle as a food source. The Mexican wolf population peaked in 2014 at 110, and is now estimated around the low 90s. Mexican wolves face a gene pool in which all wild wolves are as genetically similar as siblings, jeopardizing healthy reproduction.
Where wolf advocates and the feds agree is that some of the genetic diversity in the more than 240 Mexican wolves in captive breeding facilities needs to be added to the wild. To that end, this summer the Fish and Wildlife Service placed six captive-born pups into three wild dens to be reared. At least two pups survived. But the alpha female for the Sheepherders Baseball Park Pack, the first to take in foster pups this spring, was found dead in September and the fate of her pups remains unknown.
New Mexico has not cooperated with recent efforts, going so far as to secure an injunction against Mexican wolf releases earlier this year after the feds moved forward with cross-fostering despite the state’s refusal to sign off on permits to do so. The state Game and Fish director denied those permits over concerns about the lack of a recovery plan and its final population targets. New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish declined to make a statement on the settlement.
This recovery plan draft won’t be the first in an effort that began in 1977 with the capture of five remaining wolves in Mexico. A draft was said to be forthcoming in 1995, shortly before federal officials reintroduced captive-bred wolves to the wild. A team convened in the early 2000s to write a plan, and again a decade later. Those drafts have languished, says Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, while planning meetings have seen fewer scientists and more representatives from state game departments.
“It’s been hijacked by political forces, and that’s where it’s going now. But we at least have a date for when it will get done, and it’s still to be decided what the actual contents will be,” he tells SFR. “They can no longer keep promising it’s around the corner.”
A US Fish and Wildlife Service-convened panel that drafted a recovery plan in the early 2010s suggested a recovered, self-sustaining population would consist of three populations and a total of more than 750 wolves spreading into southern Colorado and Utah, with corridors of connectivity among them. That draft was shelved following objections by the states concerned, but conservationists’ analysis still echoes that image.
“Now we have a recovery plan coming, the next step will be what the science is and where they allow wolves to recover,” Bird, of Defenders, tells SFR.
The matter could well land back in court if conservation groups don’t see the service using the best science available.
Though some things have changed in the intervening years, Robinson says of the 2012 plan, “It’s a darn good draft and we wish they would use it.”
Arizona’s governor celebrated the opportunity to ditch “top-down, out-of-touch management from Washington DC” and declared in a press release, “We’re looking forward to working with other Western states to develop a new recovery plan that makes sense for us and provides real-world guidelines for measuring success.”
Posturing from the US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests it’s likely to propose a recovery area that doesn’t extend any farther north than I-40. Instead, attention seems directed—as pressure from states including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah has called for—south of the Mexican border.
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 for writing your letter 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.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
• Mexican gray wolves need a recovery plan that is based on science, not politics.
• The Mexican gray wolf recovery program has been operating without a substantive recovery plan for far too many years. The 1982 plan should be updated with the input of scientific experts who worked on the most recent draft attempt.
• The last attempt at a Mexican gray wolf recovery plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was drafted by scientific experts but then abandoned because it was met with political resistance from state agencies hostile to wolf recovery. The Service cannot ignore this draft plan any longer because it is now required by the court to include all available scientific information.
• Recovery of Mexican gray wolves cannot occur wholly in Mexico. There are no large blocks of public lands, there is not enough suitable habitat and prey, and there may not be enough resources to do the job. The recovery plan should focus on areas where wolf recovery is actually possible and recommended by scientists.
• The science says there must be new Mexican wolf populations in the Grand Canyon region (northern AZ/southern UT) and the Southern Rockies (northern New Mexico/southern CO), human caused mortality must be reduced, and there should be no fewer than 750 wolves.
• It has now been 40 years since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the Mexican gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.
• 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 lobo population is in desperate need of genetic improvement that can only be obtained with the release of more wolves from captivity. The captive population harbors genetic diversity not present in the wild population and we are seeing negative impacts to wild wolves as a result, including smaller litters, lower pup survival rates, and a population that is less able to adapt to changing conditions.
• 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.”
• In a 2008 poll of registered voters, 77 % of Arizonans and 69% of New Mexicans supported “the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into these public lands in Arizona and New Mexico.”
• 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.
• We have a moral, economic and scientific responsibility to restore endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf.
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, under 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.”
• 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.