Environmental organizations filed a lawsuit on January 30, 2018, in U.S. District Court in Arizona against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), alleging the agency violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by ignoring science relevant to the recovery of the beleaguered Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), a.k.a. “el lobo.” The legal action comes on the heels of USFWS’ November release of its long-anticipated Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan — a strategy conservation groups say appeases red state ranchers and falls flat in the face of science.
The lawsuit, filed by attorneys at the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) on behalf of Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians (Guardians), names Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and USFWS Acting Director Greg Sheehan. The complaint asserts the USFWS, an ancillary arm of the Interior Department, turned a deaf ear to its own scientists’ recommendations for the minimum number of wolves and the amount of habitat needed for recovery and removal from the endangered species list.
“This recovery plan was designed by politicians and anti-wolf states, not by independent biologists,” said Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center. “It’s an affront to the ESA and Congress’ directive [is to] make decisions solely on the best available science.”
The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the endangered gray wolf (Canis lupus), was granted endangered species status in 1976 after being hunted to near-extinction. At one point, el lobo almost blinked out entirely after plunging to a low of only 15 animals remaining in the wild. In 1982, the USFWS initiated the original Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan to determine a course of action for keeping the species alive. It included a captive breeding program, which in 1988, released three distinct lineages of the animal into the ecosystem.
In 2011, the USFWS’ Science and Planning Subgroup of the Recovery Team (the Subgroup), staffed by independent scientists, recommended that delisting only occur after a 750-wolf total is achieved in the wild. Additionally, the Subgroup recommended that lands in eastern Arizona/western New Mexico, the Grand Canyon region of northern Arizona and southern Utah, and the southern Rockies region of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado be allotted as Mexican wolf habitat for recovery efforts.
Despite these recommendations, state governments in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona have set substantial roadblocks in the way of recovery, including a demand that no wolves set foot north of I-40, which runs east-to-west across northern New Mexico and Arizona — meaning no wolves would be allowed to exist in Utah or Colorado whatsoever.
Today, the lobo population in the United States has rebounded slightly, hovering at around 113 animals, with an additional 31 living in Mexico. Yet, instead of following the scientists’ recommendations, the USFWS’ First Revision of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan concluded that 320 wolves would be sufficient for recovery, and in terms of habitat, it left out the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies regions for “geopolitical reasons,” a move environmental lawyers say is a fundamental violation of the ESA.
“The ecosystems in this region need wolves and the people in this region want wolves — polls overwhelmingly suggest that. So, to eschew the science-based pathway for recovery and instead implement a politically-driven and extremely flawed plan is an affront to people and place,” said Christopher Smith, Southern Rockies Wildlife Advocate for WildEarth Guardians, in an email to EnviroNews.
Conservation groups are suing on four causes of action they say violate the ESA and APA (Administrative Procedure Act), including having “no reasonable explanation for departure” from the Subgroup’s recommendations, “failure to provide objective, measurable criteria necessary for delisting” the wolf, “failure to utilize the best available science,” and “failure to provide site-specific management actions necessary for conservation.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs a plan that guarantees a large enough population of Mexican wolves to be viable over the long term, with sufficient habitat [for] wolves to flourish,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “But the current recovery plan doesn’t do that, and instead the federal government seems more intent on appeasing anti-wolf political interests than in doing its job, which is recovering endangered species to healthy and secure population levels.”
The three aforementioned NGOs, which will be joined in the suit by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Wildlands Network, want the court to force the USFWS to have another go at the plan, but this time around, they want it to follow the law as stated by the ESA and ensure that science alone, not politics, guides the recovery of the Mexican wolf.