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In the News: Governments in CO/UT/NM/AZ Deliberately Derailed Mexican Wolf Recovery, Documents Reveal

EnviroNews Colorado - December 20, 2017

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After decades of deliberation the final revision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan (the Plan) was released at the end of November, but former USFWS officials tell EnviroNews it strays far from scientists’ minimum recommendations for recovery of the gray wolf subspecies.

Meanwhile, a series of documents reveal lawmakers and agencies in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona — the four states central to recovery efforts — have been deliberately hamstringing wolf revival efforts for years.

David Parsons, former Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the USFWS from 1990 to 1999, told EnviroNews Colorado that instead of working to expand and stabilize wolf populations, the agency watered down the Plan and “essentially turned its mission over to the states” of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona — states that have repeatedly opposed many aspects of wolf recovery.

The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), a.k.a. “el lobo,” was hunted to near-extinction during the late 1800’s and 1900’s. In 1976, it gained protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and by 1982 the USFWS launched the original Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan to keep the keystone predator from being wiped off the face of the earth.

The agency’s captive breeding program released three lineages of Mexican wolves into the wild in the U.S. starting in 1998, with Mexico releasing wolves in 2011. Today, 113 of these creatures inhabit central and southern Arizona and New Mexico while 31 wolves live in the northern Sierra Madre Occidental of Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico.

Despite this modest rebound in numbers, poor genetic variability and limited high-quality habitat free from human encroachment means the future of the Mexican wolf remains bleak.

In 2014, Parsons joined a coalition of conservation groups in a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona against the USFWS for delaying completion of the Plan. In 2016, a court settlement required the agency to finish the plan by November 2017.

To achieve full recovery, the final Plan recommends the release of more captive-bred specimens in an effort to establish two “genetically diverse Mexican wolf populations distributed across ecologically and geographically diverse areas in the subspecies’ range in the United States and Mexico.” The estimated $178 million cost of recovery is to be borne by federal and state governments and NGOs.

The Plan’s ultimate goal is to increase Mexican wolf populations in the U.S. to 320 wolves and 200 in Mexico over the next 25 to 35 years, at which point the USFWS would remove the subspecies from the Endangered Species List.

In late 2011, the USFWS convened the Science and Planning Subgroup of the Recovery Team (the Subgroup) — staffed with independent scientists — which recommended a minimum of 750 wolves in the U.S. and 100 in Mexico, with three separate populations of 200 to 300 wolves, before delisting.

Parsons said that faced with these numbers, ranchers “just went ballistic.” Though stakeholders were sworn to secrecy, the Subgroup’s internal working draft was leaked and pro-ranching and hunting voices, including U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), pushed back hard against the Plan.

“They just blew the thing up in the media,” said Parsons. “Fish and Wildlife Service, true to fashion reacted by just quitting — they canceled the next meeting of [the Subgroup]… and never held another one.”

In November 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region’s Biological Report for the Mexican Wolf determined that wolf numbers wouldn’t be based on science alone, but also what is “socially acceptable in light of the expected ongoing issues around livestock depredation and other forms of wolf-human conflict.”

“They essentially asked the states how many wolves they could tolerate,” Parsons said. “They called it a social tolerance limit based on their perception of social tolerance and not backed by any science whatsoever.”

Parsons also pointed out that, aside from the special interests associated with ranching and hunting, polls have shown the vast majority of the public in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado are in support of Mexican wolf reintroduction and recovery.

Another bone of contention within the Plan is the way it limits the Mexican wolf’s range to south of Interstate 40, which runs east to west across northern New Mexico and Arizona.

The Science and Planning Subgroup recommended including sections of eastern Arizona and New Mexico, the Grand Canyon region of northern Arizona and southern Utah, and the Southern Rockies area of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado as “three major core areas of suitable habitat… capable of supporting Mexican wolf populations of sufficient size to contribute to recovery.”

A 2015 study published in Biological Conservation concluded that “most of the [Mexican wolf’s] historic range in Mexico is currently unsuitable due to human activity” with a high probability of wolves in those regions being killed by people.

However, due to “geopolitical reasons,” the USFWS chose to leave out the Grand Canyon and Southern Rockies regions in the Plan, according to notes from an April 2016 Mexican Wolf Recovery Planning Workshop in Mexico City, Mexico.

Parsons said the reason these two areas were excluded involved pushback from the state governments of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, maintaining that “state game and fish departments are controlled by game commissions and game commissions in most western states are appointed by the governors and they are stacked primarily with hunters and ranchers.”

“State governments are generally beholden to livestock and hunting interests, particularly outfitters,” wrote Bryan Bird, Southwest Director for Defenders of Wildlife, in an email exchange with EnviroNews Colorado.

He said that the opposition is “emotional and not based in fact,” pointing out that wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies hasn’t had “any measurable affect on hunting success and there are programs in place for wolf and livestock coexistence.”

While some may disagree with the assertions made by Parsons and Bird, there’s no question these four states have opposed myriad components of wolf recovery for years.

In 2015, the governors of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona sent a joint letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and USFWS Director Daniel Ashe stating they “do not support recovery of the Mexican wolf across regions and landscapes that are not part of the subspecies’ historical range.”

The letter insisted the states would “oppose the expansion, release, and occupancy” of Mexican wolves north of I-40 and that the focus of the recovery should be in Mexico. The governors argued the Endangered Species Act does not “specifically authorize” recovery of a species outside its historical range, and asserted that to do so would be “neither necessary nor scientifically supported.”

Parsons contended that the historical range question isn’t “settled science,” explaining that for a “species that was once continuously distributed from Mexico City to the Yukon and is capable of dispersing [hundreds], even thousands, of miles, it is impossible to draw a bright line that demarcates the range boundaries of different subspecies.”

Historical range aside, he said “the key issue that gets overlooked in this debate is where is the best available habitat for recovery of Mexican wolves today?”

In a quest for clarity, EnviroNews contacted all four of the governors’ offices involved. Arizona and New Mexico did not respond, but the offices of Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Herbert (R-UT) did. EnviroNews made relentless attempts with both Governors to get one query answered. That question:

In a joint letter dated November 13, 2015, signed by Governors Hickenlooper, Herbert, Ducey and Martinez, to then-Secretary Sally Jewell and Director Dan Ashe, the Governors stated, “Our States oppose the expansion, release, and occupancy of Mexican wolves north of I-40 in the States of Arizona and New Mexico and into Utah and Colorado.” Since the entire states of Colorado and Utah lie north of I-40, is your position that Mexican wolves have no place in Colorado or Utah’s wilderness whatsoever?

The answers to that question were less than satisfactory. After significant delays, Shelby Wieman, Deputy Press Secretary for Governor Hickenlooper, told EnviroNews the Governor simply couldn’t offer any clarity because, “at this point, given the complexity of the plan, and the issue itself, we’re just going to stick with [our original] statement. That’s all that we would like to comment at this point,” Wieman concluded.

The statement Wieman was referring to comes from Bob Broscheid, Director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, who said in a statement to EnviroNews Colorado:

Our initial sense is that this is good plan from a Colorado perspective, though we continue to review it to ensure our interests [are] adequately reflected. The plan does appear to be based on sound, and the best available science, reflecting the true historic range of the wolf. Colorado appreciated the opportunity to participate in the entire recovery planning process.

After asking Herbert’s office whether el lobo should be allowed to exist at all in Utah, following days of repeated requests and what seemed like an initial willingness to answer the question, Anna Lehnardt, Digital Media Director for Governor Herbert, told EnviroNews, “I’ve checked in on this, and we don’t have a comment at this time.”

The 2015 joint governor’s letter also brought up a concern with the possibility of the Mexican wolf mating with the gray wolf (Canis lupus), which the governors said would “threaten the genetic status of Mexican wolves” and impede recovery. But the governors aren’t the only officials working to stymie the return of the Mexican wolf across these western states.

In 2016, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission passed a resolution opposing the release of any wolf subspecies into the state, while urging the Mexican wolf remain within its historic range.

Also in 2016, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish sued USFWS to stop the release of captive wolves into the state. While the preliminary injunction was initially granted, it was later overturned and the case is now back in federal court.

In 2011, the New Mexico Game Commission backed out of the Mexican Wolf Recovery program altogether.

In 2010, the Arizona Game and Fish Department sent a letter to Congress asking for the gray wolf, including the Mexican wolf, to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act.

In 2010, Utah passed Senate Bill 36 requiring its own Division of Wildlife Resources to remove any wolves found within state lines. The state also threatened legal action against the USFWS if the Plan recommended expanding the range of Mexican wolves into the state.

Regarding Senate Bill 36, EnviroNews also asked Herbert’s office, “In March of 2010 you signed Senate Bill 36 into law directing Utah’s Division of Wildlife Services to remove any wolf found within Beehive State boundaries. Is it your position that wolves have no place in Utah’s ecosystem at all?” To which EnviroNews got the same answer from Lehnardt: “We don’t have a comment at this time.”

While the future of the Mexican wolf is less dire than it was in decades past, Parsons and conservationists believe the current Plan is insufficient for full recovery of the subspecies.

“Limiting the numbers and range of the Mexican gray wolf is a major blow for
ecologically relevant recovery,” Bird concluded.

On November 29, Earthjustice, on behalf of Parsons, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Endangered Wolf Center, and the Wolf Conservation Center, filed a sixty-day notice of intent to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act in the Plan.

The groups argue the Plan “contains shortcomings that will hinder — if not prevent — Mexican wolf recovery and [that it] threatens to lead to the extinction of this iconic species.”

On the heels of its minor rebound from the brink of annihilation some thirty-six years after the launch of the original Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, the fate of this majestic and misunderstood animal will now be in the hands of the U.S. federal court system.

This article was published in EnviroNews Colorado