ALBUQUERQUE — Endangered Mexican gray wolves would have more room to roam in the Southwest under a proposal unveiled Friday.
The provisions regarding the Mexican wolves are part of a plan proposed by the Obama administration that calls for lifting most of the remaining federal protections for gray wolves elsewhere across the Lower 48 states.
Protections would remain only for the fledgling population of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, which now numbers 73 animals. The plan also would allow for captive Mexican wolves to be released in New Mexico and for the wolves to roam outside the current Blue Range recovery area — two changes that independent scientists and environmentalists have been pushing for over the past decade.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said managers in the Southwest need more flexibility.
“When you look at our ability to have initial releases within the limited area that we have, it has sort of hamstrung us to a degree,” Tuggle said. “If we expand those opportunities, we sort of minimize the potential of conflicts on the landscape.”
A subspecies of the gray wolf found in the Northern Rockies, the Mexican gray wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976. The 15-year effort to reintroduce them has stumbled due to legal battles, illegal shootings, politics and other problems.
The proposal calls for expanding the area where the wolves could roam to include parts of the Cibola National Forest in central New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. In all, there would be a tenfold increase in the area where biologists are working to rebuild the population.
Environmentalists welcomed the prospect of expansion, but they voiced concerns about provisions that could create loopholes that would expand circumstances in which wolves could be killed for attacking livestock or for other reasons.
Nationwide, state and federal agencies have spent more than $117 million restoring gray wolves since they were added to the endangered species list in 1974. Today more than 6,100 wolves roam portions of the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes where protections already have been lifted.
But prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more wolves in more places. They say protections should remain in force so the animals can expand beyond the portions of 10 states they now occupy.
Lawsuits challenging the administration’s plan are almost certain.
The gray wolf’s historical range stretched across most of North America. By the 1930s, government-sponsored trapping and poisoning left just one small pocket of the animals, in northern Minnesota.
In the past several years, after the Great Lakes population swelled and wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, protections were lifted in states where the vast majority of the animals now live: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Wherever wolves are found, the primary barrier to expansion isn’t lack of habitat or prey, but human intolerance, said David Mech, a leading wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn.
Even without federal protection, he believes wolves are likely to migrate into several Western states. He added that they already occupy about 80 percent of the territory where they realistically could be expected to thrive, with sufficient prey and isolation from people.
While the wolf’s recent resurgence is likely to continue at some level elsewhere — multiple packs roam portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, California, Utah, the Dakotas and the Northeast — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe indicated it’s unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back entirely.
“Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered,” he said. “Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no.”
Hunting and agriculture groups wary of increasing wolf attacks on livestock and big game welcomed the announcement.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and a rancher from Yakima, said he was “ecstatic” over the agency’s announcement and believed it would make his colleagues more willing to accept the presence of wolves on the landscape.
“Folks have to understand that in order to recover wolves, we’re going to have to kill problem wolves,” Field said.
Over the past several years, hunters and trappers killed some 1,600 wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Thousands more have been killed over the past two decades by government wildlife agents responding to livestock attacks.
… Vast additional territory that researchers say is suitable for wolves remains unoccupied. That includes parts of the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and northern New England.
Whether the species’ expansion will continue without a federal shield remains subject to contentious debate.
The former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton said the agency’s proposal “is a far cry from what we envisioned for gray wolf recovery when we embarked on this almost 20 years ago.”
“The service is giving up when the job’s only half-done,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, who was with the agency when wolves were reintroduced in Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s. She now heads the group Defenders of Wildlife.
The Center for Biological Diversity on Friday vowed to challenge the government in court if it takes the animals off the endangered species list as planned.
Ashe said Friday’s proposal had been reviewed by top administration officials, including new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But he dismissed any claims of interference and said the work that went into the plan was exclusively that of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The proposal will be subject to a public comment period and a final decision made within a year.
How to comment
Two proposed rules affecting Mexican gray wolves and all gray wolves published in the Federal Register on June 13, 2013. Public comments will be accepted for 90 days from the date of publication through 11:59 p.m. on September 11, 2013. Guidance on how to provide comment is provided here.
Some suggested points to include in letters to the editor are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Most of these can also be used in your comments on the proposed rule.
Start by thanking the paper for the story.
A change that allows new Mexican wolves to be released directly into New Mexico instead of limiting new releases to Arizona is long overdue. This will remove obstacles to getting new wolves and healthier genetics in the wild, where they are desperately needed.
Wolves don’t read maps. Mexican gray wolves should have the freedom to roam and boundaries on their movement should be eliminated.
The Fish and Wildlife Service should complete the Mexican gray wolf Recovery Plan; without a valid recovery plan, the agency is making important decisions without a road map
While giving Mexican wolves their own ESA listing is overdue, delisting gray wolves thoughout the lower 48 is premature and unsupported by science. The very scientists whose research is referenced in the draft rule to remove the gray wolves’ protections have stated that the science does not support the delisting.
The Fish and Wildlife Service should give critically endangered Mexican wolves greater protections, including full endangered species protections, rather than extending the zone in which they can be killed or removed over livestock.
Delisting gray wolves throughout the U.S. is counter to protecting Mexican wolves. Fewer than 80 Mexican gray wolves exist in the wild. New populations of these wolves are desperately needed for them to thrive. But the draft plan would leave gray wolves unprotected in places where this endangered subspecies could and should live. This will make protection of Mexican gray wolves much more difficult should they expand into Utah or Colorado and make it unlikely that any wolves will be able to naturally reestablish a presence in the Southern Rockies, a region with excellent suitable habitat where wolves were once found.
Wolves are a benefit to the West and are essential to restoring the balance of nature.
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.
Mexican gray wolves are unique native animals. They are the rarest, most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America and the most endangered wolf in the world.
Wolves generate economic benefits – a University of Montana study found that visitors who come to see wolves in Yellowstone contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy.
This article and similar ones appeared in multiple newspapers. You can revise your letter slightly and send it to both of the papers below.
Carlsbad Current Argus
Submit your letter here.
To submit comments to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, go to http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS—HQ—ES—2013—0073, which is the docket number for this rulemaking.
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Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bose, Wolf Conservation Center