Conservation groups are hoping that a federal judge’s ruling will mean Mexican gray wolves will be allowed to venture north of Interstate 40 and expand in number beyond a current target of 325 animals.
The ruling, issued Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps, orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise a management rule for the endangered wolves that was approved in 2015.
That rule established the 325-animal population objective and established wolf recovery habitat boundaries, beyond which Mexican wolves would be captured and returned. A total of about 114 wolves now roam the defined area that spans eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, with I-40 forming the northern edge.
But the rule received harsh criticism from Zipps, who said it failed to further the recovery of the species.
“By failing to provide for the population’s genetic health, (the Fish and Wildlife Service) has actively imperiled the long-term viability of the species in the wild,” Zipps wrote. She said the rule only ensures the short-term survival of the species and specifically called out the rule’s territory boundary as an “insufficient geographic range” for the wolves.
The ruling was encouraging for groups like the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council that have long worked to expand the wolves’ range north of Flagstaff.
“I think it gives us the strongest grounding to move forward with what the science says, and it says the Grand Canyon and that region is absolutely critical to be a part of this recovery," said Kelly Burke with the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.
An expansion of designated recovery habitat into southern Colorado, northern New Mexico and the Grand Canyon region was part of a draft recovery plan for the wolves that was never finalized. The unfinished plan also estimated a minimum population of 750 animals would be needed for the wolves to no longer be at risk of extinction.
Emily Renn with the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project said she’s hopeful the Fish and Wildlife Service will come up with a proposal that more closely mimics that draft plan. The animals’ average home territories cover 250 square miles, so it makes biological sense that in order for them to be recovered and genetically viable they need more space to spread out, Renn said. She also criticized the population cap of 325 animals, which she said doesn't make any sense for recovering an endangered species.
Zipps’ ruling suggests that provision will need to change in the rule revision process. The judge called the number arbitrary and capricious and without basis in the facts in the record.
Zipps’ ruling is especially pivotal for Mexican wolves because of the length of time such federal management plans end up being in effect, said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity. The current plan has several of what Robinson called “poison pills” that, if carried out long term, could very well drive the Mexican wolf further toward extinction, Robinson said.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to change course, he said.
Zipps’ ruling could also be consequential for lawsuits that have been filed against the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 Mexican wolf recovery plan, which incorporates many elements of the 2015 management rule.
“Many of the same failings the judge recognized with respect to the 10(j) rule are equally applicable to the recovery plan,” said Timothy Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice who argued the case. Earthjustice is also arguing one of the challenges to the recovery plan.
Zipps’ order doesn’t establish any specific guidance for how the Fish and Wildlife Service must change its Mexican wolf management rule, but it gives the agency 30 days to come up with a proposed deadline for publishing a revised rule “or other remedial action.”