By BRIAN MAFFLY
Federal wildlife officials are set to convene yet another effort to craft a recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf after three failed attempts over the past three decades.
But Utah leaders and the state’s wildlife board allege the agency has rigged the science to improperly include the Four Cornersregion in the recovery zone for this critically imperiled wolf subspecies.
The Utah Wildlife Board on Wednesday is expected to finalize a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanding that the agency reconstitute the agency’s recovery team with members who are more “neutral” than the biologists currently assigned to the task.
The team is scheduled to begin meeting next week at the COD Ranch outside Tucson, Ariz. Utah also objects to this venue, because it is has hosted meetings of conservation groups.
The wildlife board also has a major ground rule for the Mexican wolf recovery planning process: No consideration should be given to terrain north of Interstate 40, the freeway that cuts across Arizona and New Mexico about 130 miles south of the Utah state line, according to statements made at the board’s last meeting in October.
It was at this meeting that the board authorized Assistant Utah Attorney General Martin Bushman to draft the letter to FWS and the Department of Interior.
The complaints raised in this letter closely align with a Nov. 13 letter to FWS director Dan Ashe signed by four governors, including Utah’s Gary Herbert. The four states — Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona as well as Utah — are “seriously troubled” by FWS’ selection of “non-neutral” scientists bent on establishing the Mexican wolf north of I-40 rather than looking to the south.
“The panel as presently constituted will be driven as much or more by personal agenda than by science. This is unacceptable,” the letter states. “Given that 90 percent of the subspecies’ historical range is in Mexico, any serious recovery planning effort must headline a Mexico-centric approach rather than the translocation of the subspecies out of its historical range into new, previously uninhabited ranges of northern Arizona / New Mexico and southern Utah / Colorado.”
FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said the agency yet to decide how it will respond to the governors’ concerns.
The letters do not name the allegedly biased scientists or identify who the states do want on the team. The recovery team is currently comprised of Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, who has participated in prior recovery planning attempts; Peter Siminski, former mammals curator at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; Carlos Carroll of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research; Doug Smith, the project leader for the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project; Richard Fredrickson, a former Arizona State University biologist now based in Montana; and John Vucetich, a demographics expert with Michigan Technological University.
These are North America’s most respected wolf biologists, Phillips said.
“I would challenge anyone to present a better body related to wolf recovery,” said Phillips, who serves in the Montana Senate as a Democrat representing Bozeman. “I’m proud of the agenda I have, and that’s to do my fair share to do the best science that can support a Mexican wolf recovery plan.”
He contends Mexican wolves historically drifted far to the north, reaching Utah and Colorado, which served as a mixing zone for gray wolves before they were eradicated in the early 20th century. Today, fewer than 100 Mexican wolves survive in the Blue Range spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border.
While FWS considers de-listing the gray wolf from protection, it intends to extend federal protection to the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies known by the scientific name Canis lupus baileyi, or by its colloquial Spanish moniker, lobo. The northern gray wolf is C. lupus occidentalis.
Phillips contends the best science shows any plan that does not include Utah and Colorado is doomed to fail because remaining wolf habitat in Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico lacks the prey base to sustain the lobo’s recovery.
In past planning, the team “optimistically” pegged recovery at 750 wolves spread around in three populations areas that included southern Colorado and the Grand Canyon ecosystem, which extends into Utah’s San Juan and Kane counties.
More important than this number, which is probably too “optimistic,” are the connections between the populations areas that would enable a deepening of what is now a “depauperate” gene pool, short of natural size and variety, Phillips said.
In an interview, Bushman said FWS is not authorized to recover a species outside its historic range.
Phillips disputes that.
“Even if Utah is right, and they are not, the [FWS] director can conclude that recovery requires going outside their historic range,” he said. “Climate change is reshuffling the entire deck, so much so that it’s safe to conclude that historic conditions are less help for understanding the future. The [carbon-loaded] atmosphere today is unlike anything in the long sweep of human history. Historic ranges might not mean much going forward.”
Past planning efforts did not result formal recovery plans, but now FWS is under a court order to finalize one. Those past efforts failed because the states were denied “the necessary opportunities to shape both the planning process and the ultimate plan,” the governors’ letter states.
The states say the recovery team must include members to their liking, a prospect Phillips welcomes.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for Salt Lake Tribune, which published this article.
The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers. Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, butplease write in your own words, from your own experience. Your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few of the talking points below rather than trying to include them all.
- The state is using out of date information — newer studies support a more northward range for Mexican gray wolves historically. Genetic research has found evidence of Mexican wolf genetic markers in Utah and Colorado, and as far north as Nebraska.
- The Endangered Species Act does not require recovery to occur within species’ historic range. Surely Mr. Bushman knows this.
- It’s hypocritical for the governors to argue that Mexican wolves should be excluded based on whether they are “native.” The state game agencies have no problem moving game species and fish into places they never lived simply for the convenience of hunters and fishermen.
- If Mexican gray wolves need habitat in Utah to survive, I am happy to have them here.
- Recovery of Mexican gray wolves cannot occur wholly in Mexico. There are no large blocks of public lands, there is not a great deal of suitable habitat and prey, and there may not be enough resources to do the job.
- We need wolves, be they Mexican gray wolves or northern wolves, to help repair Utah’s wildlands. Taking a lesson from Yellowstone and the important role of top predators in ecosystems, many of us would welcome lobos to Utah.
- States have failed to manage wildlife as a public trust for current and future citizens. State wildlife policies, which kill off predators to supposedly support game populations, are rooted in the 1800s. Fortunately, our national policy is to restore and preserve all forms of wildlife, including predators. Until the states get serious about balancing conservation vs. consumption, they should recuse themselves from decisions about endangered species.
- For over 10,000 years, grey wolves lived throughout Utah and Colorado and played an important role in shaping the landscape and maintaining balance in nature. Under state management, most subspecies of wolves were hunted and trapped to extinction. The highly endangered Mexican grey wolf is the most appropriate surviving subspecies for recovery in Utah and Colorado, and they cannot recover without help from all four states.
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service should stop letting anti-wolf state officials obstruct wolf recovery. The last effort to create a Mexican wolf recovery plan stalled precisely because the states were given opportunities to weigh in before the work of the scientific experts was released for public comment. The most recent recovery planning process, which began in 2011, ended amidst allegations of political interference by these same states with the science.
- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a scientific integrity complaint in 2012 saying that US Fish and Wildlife Service allowed politics to interfere with the new Mexican wolf recovery planning process by encouraging scientists to lower or forgo the numeric target for recovery, responding to state demands to exclude Utah, Colorado, and Northern Arizona from suitable habitat, and attempting to prevent the science subgroup from issuing final Mexican wolf recovery criteria.
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