A new federal proposal to manage imperiled Mexican wolves runs counter to what scientific advisers urged the feds to do two years ago, environmentalists say: Let them run wild north to the Grand Canyon and beyond.
Environmentalists are also unhappy that the new proposal will give some increased latitude to ranchers and wildlife agents to harass or kill Mexican wolves who pose threats to livestock or could significantly reduce populations of elk or deer. Those provisions are aimed at making the long-controversial wolf reintroduction proposal more acceptable to people living areas where wolves live, federal officials say.
Environmentalist frustration with this new wolf proposal is shared by their cattle rancher adversaries, who say the struggling wolf recovery program shouldn’t expand until reaching its initial goal of 100 wolves living in the wild. But the Arizona Game and Fish Department, a harsh critic of the rule when first proposed last summer, is more pleased with the new proposal although it’s holding off a final judgment.
The new proposal is an update to federal rules for managing the Mexican wolf as an “experimental, nonessential” endangered species. That classification means that while the Mexican wolf is protected under many circumstances, there are provisions allowing killing or harassment of the animals, including times when they threaten or kill livestock.
The current rules allow Mexican wolves to roam only in large swaths of Eastern Arizona and Southwest New Mexico. These limits have long frustrated wolf advocates who say the animal needs more living space to recover.
A draft wolf recovery plan, written in 2012 by a scientific advisory panel and never finalized, called for allowing Mexican wolves to roam not just to the canyon but north into southern Utah, and into northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
The new proposed wolf management rule released this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows them to expand into Arizona and New Mexico as far north as Interstate 40, but keeps the states’ northern edges, including the canyon, off-limits to wolves.
In addition, the 2012 draft recovery plan called for establishing three separate wolf populations totaling 750 wolves as a goal for recovering the species. The entire region suitable for recovering the wolves could support 900 of the animals, the 2012 document said.
The new proposal calls for expanding the wolf population to 325 from 83 as of early this year. A new wolf population estimate will be released in early 2015.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials say that this new proposal was not meant to carry out the goals of the formal wolf recovery plan, a legally required document that’s supposed to lay out strategies for getting the wolf removed from the federal endangered species list. The recovery plan hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. The service’s continued failure to update it is now the target of an environmentalist lawsuit.
Instead, “This is a step for us to improve the existing population so it can contribute to the recovery effort,” said Sherry Barrett, the federal Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, of the new proposal handed down this week in a draft decision and a 500-page environmental impact statement.
Barrett called the 2012 proposal an “early, early draft. The final draft recovery plan has to be publicly released and subject to public comment before it’s made official,” she added. The 2012 draft plan was never released and is stamped, “Not for Distribution.”
“The area that we are focusing on right now is the area south of Interstate 40. We’re trying to improve the existing population,” Barrett added.
“After this, we will work on the recovery plan,” said Barrett, adding she doesn’t know when that plan will be formally released.
Environmentalist Michael Robinson isn’t buying Barrett’s explanation for why the 2012 draft plan’s recommendations aren’t being followed now.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed for three decades for updating a recovery plan. Since the early 1990s, they’ve been working on a new recovery plan,” said Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Their byword has been delay. They also delayed updating this wolf management rule despite scientists saying it should be updated immediately.”
“Using one delay in recovery planning as an excuse for ignoring the science in the rule change just doesn’t hold water,” Robinson said. “You can’t use one failure to excuse another.”
The Arizona Cattle Growers Association uses the word “failure” to explain why it doesn’t believe the area where wolves can roam should be expanded.
Since the wolf population still hasn’t reached its 100-wild-wolf goal, “Why reward bad behavior by giving them more land?” asked Patrick Bray, the association’s executive vice president.
“Further, if they are going to impact our business we want them to get serious about making real compensation, funds to compensate folks for our actual losses from predators,” Bray said. “The federal government does compensate ranchers but they’re not paying the true cost of it, not accounting for the time we spend trying to replace cattle or fend off a wolf attack in the first place.
“You have 15 years of a failed program, and minor tweaks isn’t going to wake the program up,” he said.
Game and Fish Assistant Director Jim DeVos said Tuesday that while the department is conducting a careful analysis of the new proposal, based on a quick review it appears that the wildlife service plan has covered some of the issues the department raised in its critical review of the proposal last summer.
“They’ve identified a cap on number of wolves, which the department has steadfastly argued is important,” he said, and have identified logical steps to expand the wolf living areas based on its population status.
Plus, the service has included provisions for management actions for the wolf, including removal of wolves based on several factors including impacts to elk and deer, DeVos said.
“From the first look, it appears as if the service has provided a much improved ... rule than what was originally proposed in July,” he said.
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