It’s a long way from becoming a reality, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is floating a plan that would allow the Mexican gray wolf to roam north toward Flagstaff and across the state for the first time in generations.
The Mexican wolf, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, was hunted to near-extinction and then reintroduced to the wild in the Southwest in 1998. But the wolves have always been limited to a small area called the Blue Range on the Arizona-New Mexico border, where they have struggled to gain a foothold.
And while the Fish and Wildlife Service has long declared its intention to create a plan to restore wolves to the wild, it has repeatedly failed to do so. Despite decades of efforts, only 75 Mexican wolves exist in the wild with just three breeding pairs.
Elsewhere in the country, the gray wolf population, restored from 75 Canadian wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, has soared into the thousands. In June, over the objections of biologists and environmentalists, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list.
But in order to delist their bigger cousins, the agency must reclassify the Mexican gray wolf as a distinct subspecies and remove its designation as an experimental population. That means biologists must now focus their efforts on creating a real population of wild wolves.
NEAR MORMON LAKE
The Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft of proposed changes last month. It includes a massive expansion of the Mexican gray wolf’s allowed territory. If implemented, the plan would allow wolves to roam from western Arizona to eastern New Mexico between Interstates 40 and 10. Currently, any wolf leaving the Blue Range is captured and returned.
The draft also includes potential wolf reintroduction sites in northern Arizona on the Tonto National Forest, throughout the Sitgreaves National Forest and other public lands, as well as private lands where there’s a participating landowner. The Apache tribe has an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service that has allowed wolves to roam on their lands in eastern Arizona.
Wolves have been spotted in the past as close to Flagstaff as Mormon Lake and Holbrook along Interstate 40, as the animals are capable of traveling vast distances in search of food and mates.
At an Arizona Game and Fish Commission meeting in Flagstaff on Friday, the panel decided it would work with the feds to help come up with a plan, but officials emphasized that no final changes have been agreed on or even discussed at this point.
Conservationists have long seen Game and Fish as unenthusiastic about federal wolf recovery and that was apparent at the meeting on Friday, where a small group of wolf-advocates asked the agency to consider expansion.
State Game and Fish commissioner Kurt Davis interpreted the commission’s position on Friday as giving agency staff permission to move ahead with a “plan to come up with a plan.”
“We’re a long ways from soup,” agreed Commissioner John Harris.
The move is a necessary first step in reopening the long and convoluted saga of wolf recovery in the Southwest.
“This agency has sent some mixed messages on wolves over the years,” Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter told commissioners Friday.
She said the state agency should be glad to finally see a comprehensive wolf recovery plan from the federal government.
Emily Nelson of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project in Flagstaff said in an interview with the Daily Sun that none of the conservation groups were happy with the USFWS initial proposal because it doesn’t include some of the “last, best area for wolves.”
Scientists have identified the Grand Canyon as prime wolf territory.
“There’s no reason to keep that arbitrary boundary to the north,” Bahr said of the Interstate 40 line on the revised wolf recovery map.
WHY NOT NORTH OF I-40?
While the current population has never gotten close to the goal of 100 wolves, which was set in 1982, scientists say that as many as 200 wolves could be supported in the Grand Canyon region alone.
“They’re expanding the territory from the Blue Range, which is good, but it’s just making the box bigger,” Nelson said. “There are already studies which support wolves in the Grand Canyon area, but they’re not including that area.”
Added Nelson: “Both agencies are making a political decision.”
In the Blue Range, the wolves have often been shot by ranchers worried about their livestock. Earlier this summer a female wolf with pups was found shot to death in New Mexico, with her offspring assumed dead.
“If they expanded into the Mogollon Rim area, they would still be susceptible to being removed for livestock depredation,” Nelson said. “It’s still jeopardizing the population of the species when there are not very many left out there.”
CHANGE THE MANAGEMENT
Judy Prosser is the third generation of her family to operate the Bar-T-Bar ranch south of Mormon Lake on Anderson Mesa.
She owns some 2,000 head of livestock and boasts the Southwest’s “largest selection of Balancer and Angus bulls.” Her grazing lands would be inside the expanded Mexican gray wolf recovery area.
Prosser says that her ranching friends in the current recovery area have struggled and not been happy with the way things were managed. Losing livestock has affected their pocketbooks.
“The program has not been successful. I don’t think anyone has been happy with the outcome,” she said.
She said that she might be supportive of a renewed wolf effort if it was done under the control of state Game and Fish, but not with the same federal management.
“We just don’t live in an isolated, unpopulated place,” Prosser said. “Coconino is one of the most highly recreated counties in the state. I don’t think campers and homeowners in the Happy Jack and Blue Ridge area need to be concerned with letting their kids and pets outside their homes.”
This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on August 3, 2013.
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