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In the News: Disagreements, lawsuits over wolf program

White Mtn. Independent - August 14, 2018

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WHITE MOUNTAINS — Since the 1998 start of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, disagreements about the best ways to ensure the wolves’ survival have sparked lawsuits from environmental groups.

Last November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a recovery plan for the wolves as a result of pressure from environmental groups, thirty years after the inital plan for the wolves was written, but never updated. Environmental groups also sharply criticized the 2017 recovery plan; including the Center for Biological Diversity, who responded that they intend to sue over the recovery plan, claiming it does not fulfill the mandates of the Endangered Species Act.

They want to see the population counts of the wolf bumped up from a goal of 325 (currently there are about 100 wolves in the wild) and additional areas opened to the animal, north of Interstate 40. Current guidelines call for populations to remain south of the interstate.

In April, a federal judge has swatted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not doing enough to ensure there is a viable population of the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.

In a 44-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps cited repeated instances where the agency ignored the advice of “leading wolf scientists’’ in adopting its own recovery plan. And the judge said Fish and Wildlife officials acted in an “arbitrary and capricious’’ manner in deciding what to do.

On July 12, 25 conservation groups issued a press release saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to release three more captive-born Mexican gray wolf packs this summer. They claim the wolf program is being mismanaged, the wolves’ the genetic diversity is declining, the number of cross-fostered pups released in recent years is too low to meet recovery goals, and that the killing of wolves to “protect livestock as well as for other purposes …is jeopardizing recovery of the Mexican wolf.”

The Independent recently printed an Arizona Game and Fish Department response to the July 12 document stating in part: “Scientists involved in Mexican wolf recovery say environmental groups distributing old and faulty data that calls for the release of captive adult wolves are not helping.”

Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity held a meeting in Pinetop-Lakeside on Sunday, August 5, and one in Alpine on August 6. A total of 17 members of the public attended the two meetings.

Robinson gave an overview of the history of the wolves and talked about the main issues the environmental groups are concerned with, which includes declining genetic diversity and not enough wolves released from captivity. He also stated the groups are planning another lawsuit over the wolf recovery program.

In a follow-up email, Robinson wrote: “FWS authorizes the killing of wolves to protect livestock as well as for other purposes to an extent that is jeopardizing recovery of the Mexican wolf. Mismanagement includes too many removals of wolves from the wild and too few releases of wolves from captivity into the wild, leading to inbreeding.”

In a phone interview with Jim deVos, Assistant Director of Wildlife Management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, he answered several questions about the claims by Robinson and the environmental groups.

Is genetic diversity a problem among the wolves? “I don’t believe so, but it is a concern. There is not a significant decline in diversity and litter sizes are increasing. All the wolves are numbered and genetics management is carefully done,” he said.

Other statements made by deVos include: “We’ve had considerable success with cross-fostering captive born pups into wild packs … the recovery plan is ahead at this time … scientists, not all with the Game and Fish, and international experts have analyzed the data and agree that the plan is working … Center for Biological Diversity is cherry-picking old science … ” he explained.

In the July 12 press release by the environmental groups, it stated: “Release of packs was used to get reintroduction off the ground in 1998. But in 2007, the Service halted almost all releases of captive-born wolves due to pressure from the livestock industry seeking to limit expansion of the wolves’ numbers and range.”

In response, deVos said the Arizona Cattle Growers Association said the ranching community supports the cross-fostered pups program, but not the release of captive adults because they get into trouble. Ranchers and farmers have long had a problem with the wolves attacking livestock, mainly by captive-born wolves.

During his presentations, Robinson stated that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) needed to make ranchers remove dead cattle so as not to tempt and train the wolves to eat their livestock. His comments seemed to point to the carcasses of dead cattle as prompting wolf kills.

“FWS should (a) require documentation of wolves scavenging on livestock carcasses from stock that they did not kill and (b) hold blameless wolves that first scavenge on and then prey on stock, or otherwise ensure a mechanism to ensure that ranchers take responsibility for carcass removal, with field help as needed from USFWS and other cooperating agencies. This will not stop all wolf attacks on livestock, but will prevent wolves from being drawn to areas with vulnerable livestock and thereby reduce incidents of conflict. Carcasses can be carted away or buried on site where there is access for heavy equipment, doused with gas and burned when there is no fire danger, or covered with lime to render them inedible,” Robinson said in a follow-up email.

According to a story in the Arizona Republic from November, 2017, cattle made up 8 percent of the species’ diet from 1998 to 2001 in Arizona and New Mexico, while elk accounted for nearly 77 percent, researchers estimated in a 2006 study.

AZGFD will conduct a five-year assessment of the wolf recovery program will be conducted in the early 2020’s said deVos. At that time, the whole program will be studied.

“We’ve had a 16 percent growth in wolves per year,” stated deVos. “We call that a success. We have genetic concerns, but it is not a crisis and we can fix it. The population of wolves in Mexico is also growing. Why don’t we all work together for wolf recovery? We need to look at today and not old data.”

This article was published in the White Mountain Independent