With its recent Draft Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to devolve its statutory authority and responsibility for recovery of a highly endangered species onto the states of Arizona and New Mexico. This will not only undermine the prospect for recovery of this and other endangered species, but will undermine the Endangered Species Act itself.
The Mexican gray wolf (canis lupus baileyi), aka lobo, is a subspecies of gray wolf, somewhat smaller than its northern cousins and better adapted to desert-like habitat. Like its northern cousins, the lobo was mercilessly persecuted — to the very brink of extinction. The last five lobos in the wild were captured in the 1970s and 1980s. Three of them, along with four others from two additional lineages already in captivity, became the progenitors of the approximately 400 lobos now on Earth, most of which live in captive breeding facilities — and die there.
The recovery effort began with releases of captive wolves into the Blue Range of Arizona and New Mexico in 1998, and more recently in Mexico. As of the beginning of this year, only 113 lobos were alive in the U.S., with another two dozen or so in Mexico. Natural genetic exchange between the two populations is almost impossible because of the existing border wall and unnecessary wolf removals by federal agents to appease livestock growers.
Because they are all descendants of the last seven of their kind, lobos are victims of inbreeding depression, which results in smaller litters and lower survival rates. After nearly 20 years of anemic efforts, recovery is nowhere in sight. The clear remedy is to release more lobos into suitable habitat as soon as possible, but the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah have managed to hijack the recovery planning process and supplant the previous science-based recovery recommendations with their own politically motivated ones.
In a November 2015 letter from the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the states asserted “… recovery of the Mexican wolf cannot and will not be achieved if the Service does not recognize that the majority of Mexican wolf recovery must occur in Mexico… .” This ultimatum was based purely on political considerations, not science, as it is entirely within the purview of the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate recovery areas for an endangered species outside its core historic range if that’s what recovery requires. Given the reality of climate change, this is especially important in the case of the lobo. Nonetheless, the feckless Fish and Wildlife Service caved to the states’ demand that they be allowed a major role in crafting the recovery plan.
On three previous occasions, the Fish and Wildlife Service convened recovery teams to develop a scientifically and legally sound Mexican wolf recovery plan. Members of the Science and Planning Subgroup of the most recent team were, with one exception, eminent independent scientists with relevant expertise. They concluded that recovery of the lobo would require a minimum of three interconnected populations in the United States, each with at least 250 wolves, for a minimum of 750 overall.
The scientists recommended southern Colorado/northern New Mexico and the greater Grand Canyon ecoregion, extending into parts of Utah, as by far the most suitable additional areas for recovery since they provide the best remaining available habitat for lobos anywhere on the continent and will allow for genetic exchanges between populations. But once the affected states were allowed to dominate the planning process, these science-based recommendations were scrapped. Then a population viability model was front-loaded with data that produced a much lower population target than necessary for recovery — a number that the states had previously stated was the most they would accept.
The new draft recovery plan sets a recovery goal of just 320 wolves in the U.S. In addition, all lobos must live south of I-40, which bisects Arizona and New Mexico. And the U.S. population will be capped at 320 to 380 animals with removal of “excess” wolves.
A major portion of the recovery burden will be foisted onto Mexico (after all, they are Mexican wolves, right?). It should be noted here that the United States has no regulatory authority over wolf conservation in Mexico, all the empirical data on the potential for lobo recovery in Mexico implies great doubt regarding its capacity (e.g. too much private land and not enough prey), and then there’s the border wall.
The Draft Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan is a shameful sham and should be rejected.
Kirk Robinson is executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.