A recovery plan for the Mexican wolf released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service falls far short of enabling the species to rebound, according to conservation groups that panned the plan for not providing enough habitat or allowing wolf populations to grow large enough before delisting.
The plan, released Wednesday, restricts Mexican wolf populations to areas south of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico, which would preclude them from habitat in and around Grand Canyon National Park. It also calls for a target population of 320 wolves in the United States, and 200 in Mexico.
“This isn’t a recovery plan, it’s a blueprint for disaster for Mexican gray wolves,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By limiting their habitat and stripping protections too soon, this plan ignores the science and ensures Mexican wolves never reach sufficient numbers to be secure.”
Mexican wolves historically ranged "throughout mountainous regions from central Mexico, through southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southwestern Texas," according to the federal agency. "More recent information obtained from examining historical wolf specimens however, suggests that Mexican wolves may have roamed farther north. The Mexican wolf was common throughout its core range through the mid-1800s."
Within that range falls Saguaro National Park, Big Bend National Park, and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, while Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is on the fringe of the range. The Mexican wolf is said to prefer mountain woodlands, such as that found in the Rincon District of Saguaro and the high country of Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks.
According to conservation groups, a team of scientists appointed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 drafted a plan that called for three interconnected populations with a total of 750 animals. "It identified the Grand Canyon and northern New Mexico as the best places for establishing two more populations," the groups said. "Largely because officials from Utah and Colorado did not want wolves close to their borders, the Fish and Wildlife Service never finalized the plan and has let the recovery team languish. The Service’s plan released today was written with little to no input from scientists on the recovery team."
“Once again, politics trump science,” said Bryan Bird, Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest program director. “The final recovery plan fails the Mexican gray wolf with inbreeding, dangerously low populations, insufficient range and intense trapping and shooting. Mexican gray wolves are not receiving the science-based plan they desperately needed to survive.”
The Mexican wolf is one of the rarest mammals in North America, with only 113 individuals thought to be in the wild in the United States, with another 30-35 in Mexico. A census of the species is expected to start in the United States next month.
While Fish and Wildlife Service says the wolf population in the United States has been increasing since 2009, the agency adds that the individuals are too closely related to ensure a "robust" population in the long run. Under the plan, Mexican wolves from a captive-breeding program would be released into the wild in a bid to diversify the gene pool. According to the agency, the plan was crafted with input from Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah; the U.S. Forest Service; and federal agencies in Mexico.
“Mexican wolves are on the road to recovery in the Southwest thanks to the cooperation, flexibility and hard work of our partners,” said Amy Lueders, the Service’s Southwest Regional Director. “This spirit of collaboration is going to help us meet the recovery goals for this species. States, tribes, landowners, conservation groups, the captive breeding facilities, federal agencies and citizens of the Southwest can be proud of their roles in saving this sentinel of wilderness.”
There are many hurdles hindering the recovery of the Mexican wolf, including poaching, declining genetic diversity, and federal legislation aimed at removing protections for the wolf. The species was almost completely extinct when it was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. Shortly after, a captive breeding program was initiated with the only five remaining individuals. After 30 years of absence, the Mexican wolf finally returned to the American Southwest when they were released to the wild in 1998. However, after almost 20 years, the endangered Mexican wolf is still struggling to recover.
“Americans want a strong, science-based recovery plan,” said Hailey Hawkins of the Endangered Species Coalition. “Of the 100,000 comments submitted to US Fish and Wildlife Service on the Draft Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, more than 99 percent of them were in support of wolf recovery. This recovery plan should address the concerns of the public – dangerously low recovery numbers, habitat fragmentation, poaching, declining genetic diversity and a potentially disastrous border wall – not ignore them."
“The plan also precludes recovery of wolves in regions that independent scientists and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own Mexican Wolf Recovery Team’s scientific subgroup say are essential to the wolves’ long-term survival,” said Kim Crumbo, western conservation director for Wildlands Network. “Recovery zones in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains in northern Arizona and New Mexico, along with southern Utah and Colorado, are essential for lobo survival.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service published over 250 pages of supporting ‘scientific’ justification, used a sophisticated model to predict extinction probabilities, then tossed the science aside and asked the states how many wolves they would tolerate with no scientific justification whatsoever,” said David Parsons, former Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Using the states’ arbitrary upper limit as a population cap in the population viability model and forcing additional recovery needs to Mexico, the plan will guarantee that from now to eternity no more than a running average of 325 Mexican wolves will ever be allowed to exist in the entire U.S. Southwest. This plan is a disgraceful sham.”