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Scientifically designed plan needed to recover Arizona's wolves

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By Eva Sargent
SPECIAL TO THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR 

The Mexican wolf recovery effort has reached a pivotal crossroads. At last count, there were just 52 wild Mexican wolves remaining in all of Arizona and New Mexico. This sobering fact is a reminder of just how much of the wild West we've lost.  

Since 1998, nearly 100 Mexican wolves have been released into the wild. They've formed packs, had pups and successfully hunted native prey, including elk and deer. So why is the Mexican wolf still one of the most endangered mammals in North America? Part of the problem is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is relying on a recovery plan developed 28 years ago, which has never been updated to reflect modern science and lacks simple recovery criteria such as sustainable population goals.  

Even more disturbing, most losses of Mexican wolves from the population have been "removals" from the wild by wildlife authorities. They have been playing little more than referee, settling conflicts between livestock producers and wolves by either capturing or killing wolves that prey on cattle or sheep. Without clear recovery goals to guide their actions, these conflicts have nearly always been decided against the Mexican wolf.

Under a rigid policy called Standard Operating Procedure 13 or SOP 13, wildlife managers were directed to remove a wolf after three confirmed livestock kills – whether or not the wolf was raising pups, regardless of how genetically important the wolf was to the species' survival and no matter how few wolves are left in the wild.

With the population edging ever closer to extinction, the Fish and Wildlife Service realized that this had to change. It began assessing removals in a more careful, scientific way and recently agreed to scrap SOP 13. This is a welcome respite for the wolves and good news for everyone who values wolves as a key part of the balance of nature in the Southwest.

The next step, however, is for the Fish and Wildlife Service to get moving on an updated recovery plan, the road map that will guide the Mexican wolf back from the brink of extinction. Everyone will benefit from a scientifically sound plan that lays out what it will take for Mexican wolves to recover to healthy numbers so that they can eventually come off the endangered-species list.

While the Fish and Wildlife Service is drawing up this plan, wildlife officials must continue to help ranchers and landowners live with wolves. Ranchers have always found non-lethal ways to protect their livestock from threats – from disease, to weather, to other native predators like mountain lions, coyotes and bears. Wolves are a small threat among many.

For several years, Defenders of Wildlife has worked with ranchers in the Southwest and the Northern Rockies to help avoid conflict with wolves. In Arizona and New Mexico, we are often working alongside the state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put up fences and fladry (flags that help scare off wolves), to move cattle away from wolf dens and to help hire extra cowboys to watch over livestock.

These techniques, along with Defenders' program to reimburse ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, have helped ranchers be successful in the Northern Rockies — even though hundreds more wolves live there.

The Northern Rockies wolves are out there howling, luring tourist dollars and helping to keep the region's natural habitats running smoothly. This can happen here, too. We just have to give the lobos the chance they deserve.
 
Eva Sargent is the Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife.


The story above appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on December 12, 2009; you can post a comment on the story at:  http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/321025

Letters to the Editor of the AZ Daily Star in support of lobos and a strong Recovery Plan can be sent to: letters@azstarnet.com