April Reese, E&E reporter****
The Fish and Wildlife Service is basing decisions on how to recover the Mexican wolf on political consequences rather than science, a watchdog group says.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says that meeting notes, FWS talking points and other internal agency documents suggest the service is giving the opinions of Southwestern states considerable weight in deciding how to proceed with the controversial Mexican wolf program. The population now numbers about 58 wolves in the wild, according to the latest FWS census.
"These documents depict in detail the political machinations driving what are supposed to be purely science-based decisions," said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director. "These documents also strongly suggest that lawsuits are the main factor preventing the science from being completely corrupted or chucked overboard."
In an email from Mexican wolf recovery coordinator Sherry Barrett summarizing a Nov. 10, 2011, meeting between the agency and wildlife officials in Colorado and Utah, the biologist says FWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle, responding to Utah concerns about extending Mexican wolf recovery efforts northward, "told them that we are not going to focus recovery on backs of Colorado and Utah, but we're not saying that it's not important."
Tuggle also told Colorado and Utah officials that he would talk with them before moving forward with a new recovery plan and that changing the boundaries of the recovery area was a long way off, according to the email.
The meeting, held in Utah, followed a letter from state officials to FWS Director Dan Ashe in September 2011 that outlined the state's concerns with including Utah in Mexican wolf recovery efforts.
FWS's Southwest Regional Office "resists all efforts by the participating states to exclude Utah and Colorado from the recovery equation despite the lack of evidence that either state was within its core historic range," Utah officials wrote.
The letter goes on to say that "the only realistic conclusion that can be reached on the Service's objective is that it desires to establish Mexican wolf populations in the United States greater than can be sustained by its historic range in Arizona and New Mexico, and that it has no realistic intent to ever delist the species."
Tom Buckley, a spokesman for the FWS Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque, N.M., said officials there had not had time to review PEER's charges and had no comment.
FWS biologists repeatedly have recommended that for the Mexican wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, to be successfully recovered, additional populations need to be established in other areas. In a 2010 assessment, for instance, FWS concluded that the Mexican wolf reintroduction program was "at risk of failure" (*Land Letter*, May 13, 2010).
Not long after the 2010 assessment, the agency established the eight-member science and planning subgroup within the larger Mexican wolf recovery team, which came up with the recovery criteria of three connected populations of 200 to 350 wolves.
PEER and other environmental groups have repeatedly challenged the Mexican wolf program, saying it doesn't do enough to recover the animal. In June, PEER filed a complaint alleging that FWS officials interfered with scientists during deliberations on a new recovery plan for the wolf. The group filed the complaint under the Obama administration's scientific integrity rules
The Obama administration adopted a scientific integrity policy in January 2011 that says, "When scientific or technological information is considered in decision making, the information will be as robust, of the highest quality, and the result of the most rigorous scientific processes as can be achieved within the available decision time frame."
Furthermore, the Endangered Species Act requires FWS to establish "objective, measurable criteria" for when a species should be considered recovered and ready for downlisting or delisting.
Tuggle has said the agency will issue decisions on whether to reclassify Mexican wolves this month, which will factor into how biologists proceed with the recovery plan.
Local officials, ranchers and other residents want to see the population curtailed or removed, while environmental groups say FWS hasn't done enough to ensure the wolves get a fair chance to re-establish themselves. Over the years, both sides have filed suit over the program.
Under the existing recovery plan, FWS set a goal of 100 Mexican wolves in the recovery area, but the agency didn't include an official recovery threshold. The wolf population has reached about 60 animals, inhabiting both Arizona and New Mexico, and an additional 300 Mexican wolves are in captivity. The wolf is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act but is managed as an experimental population to allow "problem wolves" that repeatedly prey on livestock to be removed or killed.
April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.
This article appeared in Greenwire on September 5, 2012.
CLICK HERE to make calls urging decision-makers to keep the Fox Mountain alpha female in the wild with her family and to release more wolves.
CLICK HERE to join our email list to stay informed and get more involved with efforts to recover Mexican wolves from the brink of extinction.
Photo credit Amber Legras.