The federal government has drafted a long-awaited recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf, setting for the first time a population level that could allow the wolf to be removed from the endangered-species list.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife wrote the 1982 recovery plan, the wolves were so close to extinction that the agency did not set a firm population figure for recovery. This time around, the plan sets the de-listing threshold to 320 wolves in the U.S. and 170 in Mexico, spread over two populations for eight years.
The agency will issue the final recovery plan in November as agreed in a settlement with Arizona Game and Fish Department and Defenders of Wildlife.
Some conservation groups already question the plan. It “sets unjustifiably low thresholds,” said Michael Robinson of the Center of Biological Diversity.
In 2012, he said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned a recovery team that found the wolf needed a population of 750 spread over three populations for eight years, but abandoned the draft plan.
Amid the wolves’ uncertain future, the 1982 recovery plan had set a benchmark population of 100, but the draft update issued on Thursday emphasized that figure was not a “measurable recovery criteria as required by the (Endangered Species Act).”
In 2013, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted to support an attempt by lawmakers in the region to delist the wolves, but noted their support of wolf restoration management on a state level.
This version of the recovery plan “looks to be a very fair document,” said Jim deVos, Arizona Game and Fish Department assistant director for wildlife management. “Statewide agencies from New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona all were involved in its development.”
The updated draft recovery plan designates the recovery zone below Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico, in the wolves’ historical range.
Environmentalist have advocated for establishing populations north of I-40, regardless of the wolves’ historical range.
“Independent biologists have concluded that recovery of Mexican gray wolves in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains regions is essential to the long-term recovery of the species,” Robinson said in a statement.
In 2015, governors from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah wrote a letter to the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advocating for a “Mexico-centric approach” and against introducing wolves north of I-40, citing concerns over the wolves’ effects on livestock and big game.
Connectivity between multiple wolf populations strengthens gene diversity, making populations more resilient, research shows.
Conservation groups on Thursday said the plan should not limit the population to areas south of I-40.
“It is critical that some of the best habitat in Arizona for wolves — the Grand Canyon region — be part of this recovery effort,” said Emily Renn, executive director of Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. “Capping the population and limiting the region for recovery so severely is not a recipe for a recovered Mexican wolf population.”
The draft recovery plan won’t strike the wolf from the endangered-species list until adequate gene diversity is fostered, a threshold met once 22 captive wolves are released and reach breeding age.
Measuring genetic diversity this way is problematic because it doesn’t measure whether a wolf actually breeds once it becomes of age, Robinson said.
The endangered wolves were overhunted and whittled down over decades by settlers and the government to a population of seven in the 1980s. They are still at risk of extinction, biologists say, but in 2016, their population rose to 113 in Arizona and New Mexico.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife warn that the draft recovery plan would prematurely downgrade the wolves’ protected status.
A period for public comment on the draft recovery plan is open until Aug. 29. Find information about how to read the plan and submit comments at the wildlife service's wolf recovery site. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold four informational meetings in July.
Show your support for Mexican wolves with a Letter to the Editor today!
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 for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
• The Fish and Wildlife Service is required, by law, to incorporate the best available science into its Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. Unfortunately, they have scrapped this duty in order to attain the best political deal they could find. They have chosen to make hostile state agencies happy rather than uphold their duty to consider the best available science. The previous recovery planning science team clearly identified what these wolves need, yet those findings are being ignored.
• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to hand the management of the Mexican gray wolf recovery program to the states who have done everything in their power to sabotage the species’ recovery. Arizona game and fish ran the program for six years previously, and in that time they managed to reduce the number of wolves in the wild. The serious genetic problems the wild population is in is a direct result of the mismanagement by Arizona. If this plan is not dramatically changed, it will very likely drive the lobo to extinction.
• The Mexican gray wolf draft recovery plan includes reckless delisting criteria for the critically endangered wolf. The plan allows for delisting the wolf after twenty-two wolves released from captivity reach reproductive age. But just reaching reproductive age does not ensure their genes will be contributed to the wild population. We have seen that poaching is a major threat to individual wild wolves and if these wolves are killed before they breed, the species will still be removed from the endangered species list.
• Mexican gray wolves will need connectivity between wild populations in order to recover. Connectivity would be easy were they allowed to establish in the two additional suitable habitats in the U.S., the Grand Canyon area and the Southern Rockies. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to restrict the wolves to south of Interstate 40 and to establish a second population in Mexico. There is a barrier along large sections of the international border, talk of extending that barrier to an impenetrable wall, and the last wolf who crossed that border was removed from the wild.
• The federal agency charged with recovery of the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf has decided to put the onus of recovery on Mexico, despite the fact that this could wipe the species out. Mexico does not have nearly as much public land for the wolf, they have very little enforcement to deal with poaching, and as species shift north in response to climate change Mexican habitat will become even less suitable for wolves.
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• Thank the paper for publishing the article
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DO MORE FOR LOBOS - COMMENT DEADLINE IS AUGUST 29
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan is available for public comment until August 29, and there will be four public meetings this summer in New Mexico and Arizona:
- July 18, 6-9 p.m. Northern Arizona University, Prochnow Auditorium, South Knowles Drive, Flagstaff, AZ
- July 19, 6-9 p.m. Hon-Dah Resort, Casino Banquet Hall, 777 AZ–260, Pinetop, AZ
- July 20, 6-9 p.m. Ralph Edwards Auditorium, Civic Center, 400 West Fourth, Truth or Consequences, NM
- July 22, 2-5 p.m. Crowne Plaza Albuquerque, 1901 University Boulevard NE,
To review and comment on the draft revised recovery plan and related documents, visit www.regulations.gov and enter the docket number FWS–R2–ES–2017–0036 in the search bar.