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In the Press: Study on Traps’ Risk to Wolves Secret

Albuquerque Journal, July 20, 2011 (posted 7/22/11)

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Thomas J. Cole  
   
Last fall, the state Game Commission imposed a ban on trapping of bobcats, beaver and other fur-bearers in the Gila and Apache national forests in southwestern New Mexico because of the danger traps pose to Mexican gray wolves. 
    
The ban was to remain in place until a study could be conducted on the risk to wolves from traps set for other animals and on methods of trapping that could possibly reduce the danger. 
    
Well, the Game Commission has its study — titled “Evaluating Trapping Techniques to Reduce Potential for Injury to Mexican Wolves” — and is set to lift the trapping ban without any special changes in trapping rules to protect the wolves. 
    
Here’s the rub: The study is being kept secret from the public, even though it was done with public funds and is being used to make public policy. 
    
A federal research agency conducted the study and gave it to the Department of Game and Fish on condition it not be disclosed until the federal agency releases it to the public. 
    
The Department of Game and Fish said the secrecy condition was a surprise, but it is going along with it. 
   
Set aside your feelings about reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf; this is about open government. 
    
The Game Commission, which oversees the Department of Game and Fish, is scheduled to vote on the trapping ban at a meeting Thursday in Clayton. 
    
Phil Carter, wildlife campaign manager at Animal Protection of New Mexico, says the commission should put off the vote until the study on the risks to wolves is made public. Carter also wants the public to have time to review and comment on the study. 
    
He may be barking at the moon, given that the federal bureaucracy is involved and Gov. Susana Martinez isn’t a fan of the federal recovery project for the Mexican gray wolf. 
    
The seven-member Game Commission — with a majority of its members appointed by Martinez — voted last month to suspend the state’s participation in the wolf recovery project. …

The Game Commission imposed the ban on trapping in the Gila and Apache national forests at the direction of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a supporter of the wolf-recovery project. 
    
Richardson said as many as nine wolves were caught in traps set for other animals over eight years. Two of the wolves had to have legs amputated, he said. 
    
The Department of Game and Fish contracted with the New Mexico Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit to investigate potential effects of trapping on the wolves and to review published information on the topic. 
    
The unit, housed at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, is part of the U.S. Geological Survey, which in turn is an arm of the Department of Interior. 
    
In May, Kevin Whalen, an official with the Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., advised the research unit that it could release the trapping study to the Game and Fish Department but that the department couldn’t publicly release the document. 
    
Geological Survey policy restricts disclosure of its data and information to agency-approved formal publication or other approved means of public release. 
    
Whalen wrote that he had read the trapping study and found it to be “purely science-based and free of policy recommendations.” …
        
The research unit said it is working to have the study approved for public release by the Geological Survey and that should happen in three to four weeks. 
    
Martin Frentzel, a spokesman for the Department of Game and Fish, said the department, at the time it requested the study, wasn’t aware of the Geological Survey policy on public release of its work. 
    
Frentzel said the department had expected the study would be made available to the public. 
    
“Nevertheless, department staff have reviewed and evaluated its contents and made appropriate and professional recommendations based, in part, on information in the report,” he said. 
    
The staff has recommended that game commissioners, who also have been given access to the study, lift the trapping ban without imposing any special rules to reduce the risk to wolves. 
    
Frentzel said the study included a review of trapping devices and practices and their potential to harm wolves. The study also looked at possible steps to reduce the risk of harm. 
    
Frentzel said the research unit assessed the department $1,275 for the study. 
    
There is a possible way out of this secrecy mess. 
    
Geological Survey policy says data and information can be publicly released when there is an immediate demand and prompt publication is impossible or unlikely. 
    
“The reports thus released should contain an adequate statement of their preliminary nature and that the information may be subject to change,” the policy says. 
    
So, it seems, the Geological Survey could release the study with a disclaimer and the Game Commission could put off a vote on lifting the trapping ban until the public has time to read the report and comment. 
    
That would be a victory for open government. 
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Photo credit: Three-legged Mexican wolf courtesy of Mexican gray wolf Interagency Field Team