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Editorial: New wolf recovery plan needs to focus on science

Albuquerque Journal - August 3, 2017

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s long-awaited revision of its Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan – currently a draft but due in its final form by Nov. 30 – isn’t being fully embraced by environmental groups or cattle ranchers, which could indicate it’s a fair compromise.

But the plan, which hadn’t been updated since 1982, contains some serious flaws that appear to place political expediency ahead of science. Those shortcomings need to be addressed in the final document, as it will be the de facto road map for saving the Mexico gray wolf from extinction and ensuring a healthy ecosystem in southwestern New Mexico and Arizona.

Every existing Mexican gray wolf, also known as the lobo, traces its lineage to seven lobos captured in the wild in the late 1970s in an effort to prevent the wolves from becoming extinct. Those seven wolves were placed into a captive breeding program and, in 1998, some of their offspring were released into the wild under Fish and Wildlife’s reintroduction program.

Given their limited gene pool, ensuring the lobos’ genetic diversity remains a challenge. Efforts to improve the gene pool necessarily include establishment of several different wolf packs throughout the reintroduction area – another point of contention.

The draft plan calls for limiting the reintroduction to areas south of Interstate 40 in New Mexico and Arizona, similar to its historic range, which stretches from Albuquerque to Mexico City, and from Phoenix to San Antonio. Wolf advocates say that is too limiting while critics question the need to “reintroduce” wolves to places they never inhabited.

Bryan Bird with Defenders of Wildlife says much of the historic habitat has been lost to development – it’s highly unlikely they will settle around metro areas and interchanges – so defining a recovery area that focuses solely on historical range “would preclude recovery.”

Plus, he says “reintroducing the apex predator (or wolf) to the northern extent of its suitable habitat would return some balance to ecosystems overpopulated with elk and result in a ‘Yellowstone effect.’ ” Two decades ago, Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem was in decline and experiencing defoliation and riparian erosion because of an unbalanced ecosystem – much of which was caused by the disappearance of wolves and a subsequent boom in the elk and deer populations, which led to overgrazing. After wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the elk herds were thinned out, riparian area became re-vegetated, and other wildlife – birds, beavers, bears, etc. – returned. The ecosystem had rebalanced.

In addition to a faulty recovery area, Fish and Wildlife’s draft plan surmises the lobo could be taken off the endangered species list once its population reaches 320 in the United States and 170 in Mexico. At last count, there were 113 Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. at the end of 2016, and 28 in Mexico as of April 2017. Bird and other wolf proponents say the U.S. must have at least 750 wolves in the wild to ensure the genetic diversity needed to de-list the lobo.

And while some argue that Mexico isn’t doing its part in the wolf reintroduction program, Bird said Mexico is doing what it can with limited resources and little public land.

Ranchers complain that wolves prey on their livestock and, though they can receive compensation for livestock that are proven to have been killed by wolves, it’s too hard to qualify for a payment that’s too low. They also want the wolves taken off the endangered species list as soon as possible.

While a 2010 USDA study indicates only about 0.1 percent of livestock losses can be attributed to wolves, Bird references an innovative program that pays ranchers for wolf presence rather than predation, and it sounds like a smart compromise.

Expanding the wolves’ territory and gene pool are key to the wolf’s successful reintroduction. U.S. Fish and Wildlife needs to focus its draft plan on the science, which supports those changes, ahead of rhetoric or political expediency.


This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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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 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required, by law, to incorporate the best available science into its Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. Unfortunately, they have scrapped this duty in order to attain the best political deal they could find. They have chosen to make hostile state agencies happy rather than uphold their duty to consider the best available science. The previous recovery planning science team clearly identified what these wolves need, yet those findings are being ignored.

• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to hand the management of the Mexican gray wolf recovery program to the states who have done everything in their power to sabotage the species’ recovery. Arizona game and fish ran the program for six years previously, and in that time they managed to reduce the number of wolves in the wild. The serious genetic problems the wild population is in is a direct result of the mismanagement by Arizona. If this plan is not dramatically changed, it will very likely drive the lobo to extinction.

• The Mexican gray wolf draft recovery plan includes reckless delisting criteria for the critically endangered wolf. The plan allows for delisting the wolf after twenty-two wolves released from captivity reach reproductive age. But just reaching reproductive age does not ensure their genes will be contributed to the wild population. We have seen that poaching is a major threat to individual wild wolves and if these wolves are killed before they breed, the species will still be removed from the endangered species list.

• Mexican gray wolves will need connectivity between wild populations in order to recover. Connectivity would be easy were they allowed to establish in the two additional suitable habitats in the U.S., the Grand Canyon area and the Southern Rockies. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to restrict the wolves to south of Interstate 40 and to establish a second population in Mexico. There is a barrier along large sections of the international border, talk of extending that barrier to an impenetrable wall, and the last wolf who crossed that border was removed from the wild.

• The federal agency charged with recovery of the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf has decided to put the onus of recovery on Mexico, despite the fact that this could wipe the species out. Mexico does not have nearly as much public land for the wolf, they have very little enforcement to deal with poaching, and as species shift north in response to climate change Mexican habitat will become even less suitable for wolves.

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 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.

Submit your letter to the editor of the Albuquerque Journal



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DO EVEN MORE FOR LOBOS!

Submit comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service before August 29


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Electronically: Go to www.regulations.gov and enter FWS–R2–ES–2017–0036

Hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to:
Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS-R2-ES-2017-0036
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22041-3803



Additional Documentation Referenced in Draft Plan:




5 peer reviews received on the above documents (Peer reviews are anonymous at this time but FWS will provide peer reviewers names and affiliations when the recovery plan and biological report have been finalized.)