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In the News: Group alleges political meddling in wolf program

Denver Post, June 8, 2012 (posted June 11, 2012)

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By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—The effort to return the Mexican gray wolf to the American Southwest has been fraught with legal disputes, illegal shootings, livestock deaths and emotion. Now a watchdog group is questioning the integrity of key scientific findings related to the endangered animal's recovery.

Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint this week with the U.S. Department of Interior, alleging that political meddling has threatened to lower the number of wolves required for recovery.

The group also contends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended recovery planning in May in response to political pressure that followed the release of confidential documents to politicians and advocacy groups and concerns voiced by officials in Utah and Colorado about expanding the wolf recovery area to their states.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based group, called the science behind Mexican gray wolf recovery a "political football."

"The time for political negotiation comes after the scientific work is done," Ruch said. "In this instance, Obama officials are attempting to improperly pre-negotiate the science to accommodate political partners."

Regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to comment and referred all questions to the Interior Department.

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said Friday the department will review the allegations per the standard procedures outlined by its scientific integrity policy. He declined to comment further.

The accusations do not help President Barack Obama, who has taken steps to paint himself as a pro-science president after his predecessor was accused of having put politics over evidence.

In 2008, the Interior Department's inspector general found that Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service for the Bush administration, improperly interfered with at least 20 decisions on endangered species. A report by the inspector general said the integrity of the Endangered Species Act was harmed as a result and hundreds of thousands of federal dollars were wasted. …

Surveys done at the beginning of the year put the wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona at about 58. Biologists had expected more than double that by now.

Through rallies and letters to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, environmentalists have unsuccessfully pushed for the release of more captive-bred wolves to bolster a population that's scattered across millions of forested acres in the two states. Their argument: More wolves would alleviate problems with inbreeding and help offset illegal killings.

Environmentalists and even some scientists who work with the program have often blamed politics for the lack of releases.

"Certainly the frustration has been building," Ruch said.

According to the complaint filed Thursday by Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility, the Fish and Wildlife Service and its state partners have developed draft policies, informal agreements and other documents to "limit the input of the best available science regarding wolf recovery in future actions."

Aside from the number of wolves needed for recovery, the complaint points to threats against scientific findings that address suitable habitat and the number of separate wolf populations that would make recovery successful.

The complaint has sparked a call from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., for a "full and fair investigation."

"Attempts to change scientific findings because of political preferences should not be part of the process," the congressman said in a letter sent Thursday to Salazar and Fish and Wildlife Service officials.

Ruch said he hopes the complaint leads to an investigation. …

The group Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility wants the Interior Department to enforce its integrity policy, take disciplinary action against employees who violate the policy and establish disclosure rules for communications between stakeholders and regional wildlife directors when it comes to recovery plans for threatened and endangered species.

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To read the full article published in the Denver Post, click here.  A short version appeared in the Albuquerque Journal as well. You can read it here.

Please write letters to the editors of the Denver Post and Albuquerque Journal, thanking them for this story and calling on the Department of Interior to enforce scientific integrity for the Mexican gray wolf recovery planning process. Tips for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.

Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points

Below are a few suggestions for ensuring your message gets through clearly-your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few key points, so don’t try to use all of these. If you need additional help or want someone to review your letter before you send it, email it to info@mexicanwolves.org.

  • Start by thanking paper for publishing this article. This makes your letter immediately relevant and increases its chances of being published.
  • Convey how important a new, scientifically valid recovery plan is to the continued survival of this critically endangered wolf. Over 13 years since they were first introduced into the wild, there are fewer than 60 Mexican gray wolves in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico, making them the most endangered wolf in the world. These wolves cannot afford further political obstacles to sound planning for their recovery.
  • Emphasize that science, not politics, must guide the recovery of these important animals. The scientists on the recovery team must be allowed to do their work unhindered by political pressure.
  • Tell readers why you support wolves and stress that the majority of New Mexico and Arizona voters support the Mexican wolf reintroduction. Polling showed 69% support in New Mexico and 77% support in Arizona.
  • Talk about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you. If you’re a grandmother wanting your grandchildren to have the opportunity to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.
  • Reiterate the ecological benefits of wolves to entire ecosystems and all wildlife.  Wildlife biologists 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.
  • Keep your letter brief, no more than 150 words.
  • Provide your name, address, occupation, and phone number, your full address, occupation, and phone number will not be published, but they are required in order to have your letter published.
  • Submit your letter to the Denver Post at openforum@denverpost.com (straight text only; no attachments), and to the Albuquerque Journal here.
Please send us a copy of your letter as well, so that we can track the actions taken to save these wonderful animals.

Thank you for taking the time to submit a letter. The many letters to the editor expressing support for Mexican gray wolves published in the last year have made a real difference!

Photo courtesy of Amber Legras