Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has announced plans to sue the Obama administration over the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decades-old Mexican wolf recovery plan, arguing — as environmentalists have done recently — that the 1982 plan is so outdated that it no longer provides an adequate framework to guide the recovery effort.
While environmentalists agree, they are concerned that the Game and Fish Department, or GFD, is simply using the threat of a lawsuit to delay and influence the new recovery plan.
The GFD said that it believes that the current plan hasn’t set clear criteria for downlisting or delisting the Mexican wolf from protections offered under the Endangered Species Act and doesn’t focus enough on recovery efforts south of the U.S. border. If Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees FWS, doesn’t respond to GFD’s notice of intent to sue within 60 days, the state will pursue civil action.
“This Notice of Intent is an effort to ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service adheres to its legal obligation to develop a thorough science-based plan that will lead to a successful recovery outcome that recognizes Mexico as pivotal to achieving recovery of the Mexican wolf given that 90 percent of its historical range is there,” said GFD Director Larry Voyles in a statement released Monday.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) added in the statement that “I fully support today’s action and I look forward to working with the department to develop a legal and sound plan for the recovery of the Mexican wolf.”
The state’s notice of intent to sue, a required precursor to filing a lawsuit against the federal government, also has the backing of Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). “Without an updated plan that includes recovery criteria, the Mexican Wolf will remain on the Endangered Species list in perpetuity,” he said in a press release yesterday.
“To make matters worse, a recent proposal to increase the geographic boundaries for the Mexican Wolf will result in huge swaths of lands becoming blocked off for other uses and in most cases prevent things like energy extraction, mining, timber harvesting and various other forms of economic development,” Gosar said, referring to a controversial plan that would give Mexican wolves more room to roam but make it easier for people to kill them (Greenwire, Nov. 25, 2014).
The looming lawsuit would also add to the legal woes surrounding FWS’s Mexican wolf recovery program. The agency was sued over the recovery plan late last year by a coalition of environmental groups and a former federal government official in charge of leading the recovery of the Mexican wolf (Greenwire, Nov. 12, 2014).
The GFD statement raised concerns about the environmentalists’ lawsuit by arguing that they “are pushing for re-establishment of Mexican wolves in areas that are not part of the subspecies’ historical range and requesting a resolution in an unreasonable timeframe.” The statement also alleged that “the science used as a basis for the recommendations [is] significantly flawed. This misguided approach could jeopardize genetic integrity of the subspecies if the Mexican wolf is permitted to reestablish in close proximity to Northern gray wolves.”
Environmentalists suspicious of GFD
But Eva Sargent, the director of Southwest programs at Defenders of Wildlife and one of the environmentalists spearheading the joint lawsuit, pointed to those allegations to suggest that the state’s notice of intent to sue “is more smoke and mirrors and political foot-dragging.”
“It is kind of counterintuitive,” she said. “The reason that they’re saying that is because they believe that the Fish and Wildlife Service is probably going to settle with us instead of fighting this suit. And if the Fish and Wildlife Service were going to settle with us, they want to be at the table.”
FWS can create a viable Mexican wolf recovery plan very quickly, according to Sargent.
“They have already done the science. It’s been peer-reviewed. So it’s actually possible — since the science has been done — to finish the recovery plan fairly quickly,” she said. “I think if you’re going to complain about it, you have to have some other peer-reviewed science to put up against it.”
As a result, Sargent and Defenders “think that Arizona Game and Fish is trying to come in as a delay tactic.”
Bethany Cotton, the wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, added in an email that the GFD’s “efforts to undermine Mexican wolf recovery are long documented.”
FWS, which has a policy against weighing in on pending litigation, declined Greenwire’s request for comment.
Weighing less than 90 pounds and growing to be no more than 6 feet long, the Mexican wolf is the smallest and rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America.
Once common throughout much of the Southwest, the patchy black, brown and cream-colored canids were all but eliminated from the wild by the 1970s.
Efforts were then made to breed Mexican wolves in captivity. In 1998, the U.S. government released 11 wolves back into the wild Arizona and New Mexico on an experimental basis. There are now about 83 of them in the United States.
Mexican wildlife officials followed suit in October 2011 and have released 14 wolves through August 2014. But only about seven remain in Mexico, five of which are pups.
This article was published by Energy and Environment in Greenwire.
Top-Mexican gray wolf by photographer Jim Clark
Bottom-Nancy Gloman and Eva Sargent, taken by Jean Ossorio