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In the News: Wolf recovery plan challenged in court by advocacy groups

Ruidoso News - January 31, 2018

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Southwestern wolf advocates last week challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in court over its 2017 Mexican wolf recovery plan, which they contend violates the Endangered Species Act, excludes the best available science and imposes an arbitrary population cap based on "social tolerance," which increases the endangered lobos' extinction risk.

Major points of contention are the reduced population number and restricted habitat.

A 2012 draft plan written by agency-appointed scientists recommended a management target of at least 750 Mexican wolves in three populations across their native Southwestern range connected via wildlife corridors. But what advocates call "the Service's deeply flawed final 2017 recovery plan, devised in closed meetings with only state game department representatives present," ignores the best available science and doesn't come close to the scientists' recommendation, targeting a total of just 320 wolves and using an interstate highway as an arbitrary boundary restricting their territory.

"This recovery plan was designed by politicians and anti-wolf states, not by independent biologists,"  Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center said. "It’s an affront to the ESA and Congress’ directive make decisions solely on the best available science."

Many ranching communities in Lincoln County have come out against the reintroduction effort, citing insufficient compensation for livestock lost to packs, among other objections. They have said they fear the expansion of the reintroduction territory will sweep in local ranching lands or that with the growth of packs, wolves will migrate to the county negatively affecting the local beef industry.

Wolf reintroduction advocates contend the Service's claims that the plan is peer reviewed is not accurate, and the agency failed to incorporate the valid scientific concerns raised by many of the peer reviewers and leading wolf experts, including but not limited to Dr. Carlos Carroll, Dr. Richard Fredrickson, the American Society of Mammalogists, the Society for Conservation Biology, Mike Phillips and David Parsons.

"The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has kowtowed to anti-wolf interests instead of heeding the best available science," Christopher Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said. "This new plan is a dramatic swerve away from recovery and toward extinction and with this lawsuit, we are demanding the Service reverse course."

"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 wolves to flourish," Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project, said. "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 plan fails to account for the wolves' current genetic crisis due to inbreeding, defies science with its made-up population cap, incorporates incomplete and uncertain data and includes inaccurate assumptions about mortality rates, the advocates said.

The plan eschews Mexican wolf conservation in areas of suitable, but currently unoccupied habitat, including the southern Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon area. It focuses solely on a single area where the subspecies currently resides and is restricted from leaving. The Service never analyzed other suitable habitat, including those identified in a significant body of scientific literature for recovery purposes, the advocates said.

The plan also ignores variations in which habitat is suitable resulting from climate change, and assumes in the absence of any meaningful data or analysis on available prey density, Mexico possesses sufficient habitat to support restoration efforts. In addition, the plan ignores the impacts of a border wall that would prevent any connectivity between the U.S. and Mexican lobo populations, they said.

"Mexican wolves are an essential part of the country's first wilderness area and other southwestern forests", Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said. "To thrive, our wildest places need keystone species like the wolf, and we remain committed to ensuring its actual recovery from the brink of extinction".

The plan fails to properly analyze and address the likelihood of extinction, how long it could take, and what degree of risk is acceptable even if the final plan’s criteria are met. It relies on flawed population abundance, geographic distribution, and genetic criteria determinations, including a faulty definition of "surviving to breeding age" that requires no evidence of breeding in the wild, as well as inaccurate data and science on the number of "effective releases" needed to ensure adequate genetic representation in the two wild populations, the advocates contend.

"The plan excludes crucial habitat surrounding and including Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, which are core areas scientists consider most likely to support recovery of this imperiled carnivore," Kim Crumbo, conservation director for Wildlands Network, said. "The plan also excludes southwestern Colorado, an area that contains more public land and prey for wolves than anywhere else in the U.S. outside of Alaska. For these reasons, the plan doesn’t protect Mexican wolves; it fails them."

Under the plan, only two isolated populations; a single subpopulation of about 320 wolves in the United States and a Mexican subpopulation of 200, are required for delisting. This conflicts with the Endangered Species Act's mandate to conserve/recover the Mexican wolf subspecies "throughout all or a significant portion of its range" as well as the Service’s own definition of recovery, advocates claim. If Mexican wolf numbers in Mexico increase to 200, but the subspecies remains limited to a single isolated population in the U.S., Mexican wolves are not "recovered" under the Endangered Species Act. Not a single published peer-reviewed study suggests otherwise, they said.

The lawsuit is brought by WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watershed Project represented by attorneys at the Western Environmental Law Center. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Wildlands Network will join the suit once their notice period has run.

The lobo, or Mexican wolf, is the smallest, most genetically distinct, and one of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. The species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, but recovery efforts have largely foundered because the Service has yet to implement scientifically recommended recovery actions.

Although lobos once widely roamed across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the Mexican wolf was purposefully eradicated from the United States on behalf of American livestock, hunting, and trapping interests. Recognizing the Mexican wolf's extreme imperilment, the Service listed it on the federal endangered species list in 1976, but recovery efforts have largely foundered.

In 1998, after the few remaining wolves were put into captivity in an attempt to save the species, the Service released 11 Mexican wolves to a small area on the border of Arizona and New Mexico now known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The program has limped along ever since, with illegal killings and sanctioned removals subverting recovery.

At last official count, 113 wolves roam the American Southwest. Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk, because of their small population size, limited gene pool, threats from trapping, Wildlife Services’ activities, and illegal killings, advocates said.

This article was published in the Ruidoso News