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In the News: Biologists, wildlife managers divided on basics of wolf recovery

Arizona Daily Sun - September 11, 2017 - You Letters are Needed

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"If the final plan is a close reflection of the draft, then I am confident in predicting that it will set the Mexican wolf adrift for decades without ever approaching the shore of recovery."

-- Mike Phillips, executive director, Turner Endangered Species Fund


A recently released federal recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf has received harsh criticism from three of the biologists the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled together six years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to draft the same type of recovery document.

“Overoptimistic assumptions,” “flawed” and “impractical” were among the words used in the biologists' comments on the federal plan. It sets a recovery goal of 320 wolves in an area of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate-40 and another 170 wolves in northern Mexico.

The biologists were part of a nine-member science advisory group that in 2012 concluded more than double that number of wolves spread out over a much larger range would be needed to establish a self-sustaining population in the Southwest.

Their feedback stands in stark contrast to comments submitted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which complimented the federal recovery plan, saying it includes the “most current and best available data” and establishes “practical and achievable recovery criteria.”

The divergent comments indicate that even after 40 years of federal wolf recovery efforts, scientists and many conservation organizations disagree with state and federal wildlife managers on basic scientific data about the animals’ historical range, population viability and potential habitat.

In all, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft plan received nearly 100,000 comments by the Aug. 29 deadline. The Fish and Wildlife Service will review the input before coming out with a final recovery plan by a court-mandated deadline of November 2017. It will be the first update to the recovery plan since 1982 after three past attempts, all of which were unsuccessful.

FAULTY SCIENCE

Carlos Carroll, with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, Montana-based biologist Rich Fredrickson and Mike Phillips, the executive director of Turner Endangered Species Fund, were the only three members of the 2011 science team to comment on the most recent Mexican wolf recovery draft plan. With more than 60 years of experience with wolf populations between them, the biologists were united in their disapproval of the population viability modeling that underpins the federal plan.

The model is over-optimistic in its assumptions about things like the proportion of breeding females and the frequency and intensity of future disease outbreaks, Carroll and Fredrickson wrote. It also assumes continued supplemental feeding of the wolves to avoid conflicts with livestock, which is problematic and unrealistic, Phillips and Fredrickson wrote.

The Fish and Wildlife Service overestimates the amount of suitable habitat in Mexico as well, Phillips wrote. He noted that hurdles to wolf recovery across the border include a high amount of private land, abundant livestock that could lead to frequent wolf-livestock conflicts, unknown numbers of native prey and infrequently enforced wildlife protection laws.

"If the final plan is a close reflection of the draft, then I am confident in predicting that it will set the Mexican wolf adrift for decades without ever approaching the shore of recovery," he wrote.

As for the plan’s designation of wolf recovery areas only south of Interstate-40, Carroll wrote that neither Fish and Wildlife policies nor the Endangered Species Act requires an exclusive focus on historical range.

The lack of sufficient suitable habitat with low mortality risk in Mexico requires defining a broader recovery region that includes the Grand Canyon region and Southern Rockies, he wrote.

PLAN SUPPORT

Habitat in Mexico is cast as much more promising in comments submitted by Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Writing for the state wildlife agency, deVos called the Fish and Wildlife Service’s habitat analysis “state of the art” and affirmed that it shows “large areas of high quality habitat” in Mexico.

Devos also took aim at methods of genomic analysis that advocates say provide evidence that the Mexican gray wolf’s ancestors roamed north of I-40, calling them “poorly understood molecular markers.” Instead, deVos referred to a 2017 study by Game and Fish Wildlife Science Coordinator Jim Heffelfinger that the animals’ historical range was limited to southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and portions of Mexico.

When it comes to the population viability analysis that Fredrickson, Carroll and Phillips each described as flawed, deVos wrote that it represents “the most current and best available data” and “the best predictive model of future population viability.”

Game and Fish's plan includes not only redundancy in designating two populations, but also resiliency in the numerical recovery criteria that it establishes, deVos wrote.

One of the few facts that all sides agree on? At last count, the wolves’ wild population numbered at least 113, which is the highest number since the animals were first reintroduced into the forests of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico nearly two decades ago.

This article was published in the Arizona Daily Sun

Read the complete comments submitted by the Biologist quoted in the article.

Mike Phillips, Executive Director, Turner Endangered Species Fund

Carlos Carroll, with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research

Rich Fredrickson, Montana-based wolf biologist

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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 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.

Submit your letter to the editor of the Arizona Daily Sun


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The comment period is over, but you can read the comments that were submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service HERE.

Links to the Draft Recovery Plan and supporting documentation are provided below.



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.)