A federal appeals court in Denver on Tuesday lifted an order that blocked the federal release of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico without the permission of the state Department of Game and Fish.
The ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came in a case brought last year by the Department of Game and Fish against the U.S. Interior Department and its Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the wolf-recovery program.
The appeals court overturned a June decision by U.S. District Judge William Johnson in Albuquerque to issue a preliminary injunction against wolf releases by the Fish and Wildlife Service without approval of the Game and Fish Department.
The appeals court said the Department of Game and Fish had failed to show it would suffer irreparable harm if wolves were released before its case against the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service is decided. The case argues that state permission is needed for wolf releases.
The appeals court didn’t address the merits of the case brought by the Department of Game and Fish. Johnson had found the department would likely win the lawsuit. The Fish and Wildlife Service says it has authority under the Endangered Species Act to release wolves without state approval.
The Department of Game and Fish and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been entangled in a debate over Mexican wolf recovery since 2011, when the state ended its participation in the federal recovery program.
Wolf advocates applauded the appeals court ruling as a victory for the Endangered Species Act, the federal law providing for the wolf’s recovery. But it is unclear when, or if, the Fish and Wildlife Service will resume reintroduction of the wolf in New Mexico.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke voted against protections for the gray wolves and other endangered species as a Republican congressman for Montana. His nomination for interior secretary was opposed by 170 environmental groups, in part because of his record related to endangered species protections.
The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to request for comment on the appeals court ruling.
Lance Cherry, a spokesman for the Department of Game and Fish, said in an email that the department will “continue to do all we can to show how unpermitted experimental release of Mexican wolves by the federal government will be harmful to New Mexicans. Our priority will always be doing what’s best for New Mexicans, our wildlife and natural resources.”
At issue in the case is how the Endangered Species Act interacts with or impedes states’ rights.
The Department of Game and Fish argued the case with the support of 18 states, including Colorado, Arizona and Texas, as well as the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance intervened in support of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department.
Bryan Bird of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement, “Now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can again release Mexican gray wolves into the wild in New Mexico, we hope that their numbers will continue to climb and that their genetic diversity in the wild will improve.”
He said, “It will be up to the staff of the wolf recovery program to do what they said they would in the release plan.”
In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service, despite the preliminary injunction against unpermitted wolf releases, published a draft plan calling for release of wolf packs and pups in New Mexico and Arizona this summer.
Bird said it was unlikely Interior Department senior leadership would intervene with species recovery management in the Southwest.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity agreed. “Right now, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to release wolves, and most compellingly, the wolves really need new animals to bolster their shaky genetics,” he said.
In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service sought two permits to release wolves in New Mexico, but the Department of Game and Fish denied the requests, arguing the federal management plan for the recovery failed to consider up-to-date science.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it didn’t need state permission under the Endangered Species Act, released two wolf cubs last spring, an action that led to the lawsuit by the Department of Game and Fish.
The appeals court, in lifting the preliminary injunction against wolf releases, said the Department of Game and Fish had “failed to establish that it will suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction.”
The court said Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval had failed to present sufficient evidence that releasing wolves would change “predator-prey dynamics, other attributes of the ecosystem, or factors influencing the accuracy of the Department’s management objectives … let alone indicate that any potential harm would be certain, imminent, and serious.”
At last count, there were 113 Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, up from 97 in 2015.
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 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
• The captive population of Mexican gray wolves has enough genetic diversity that more releases of wolves could save the wild population from inbreeding, but more releases must happen, and quickly.
• If New Mexico had not blocked releases of wolves in 2016, the population would be more healthy today.
• The majority of citizens support Mexican gray wolf recovery. States should do everything in their power to help the program, not hinder it.
• At last official count, only 113 Mexican gray wolves were found in the wild, making them one of the most endangered wolves in the world. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only two families in 2017 is sadly inadequate to the need to increase the numbers and genetic health of endangered lobos in the wild.
• If Senators Flake and McCain succeed in passing the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan Act, which aims to give states control over the process, states that have shown themselves to be hostile to Mexican wolf recovery would gain veto power over the Service's recovery plan. This would spell disaster for the already fragile wild population of lobos. Lobos need more protections, not fewer. Fourteen endangered Mexican wolves were found dead in 2016. Hostility by the states, towards the recovery program, may embolden poachers.
• A majority of voters in New Mexico want to the recovery program to succeed. Governor Martinez would gain more support from voters by working with the recovery program, rather than against it. 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.”
• 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.
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 150 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.