By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—A lawsuit is still alive, challenging the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is managing a reintroduction program aimed at returning the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest. A federal judge rejected a motion by the federal agency to throw out the case, which was filed nearly a year ago by several conservation organizations that have concerns about certain rules governing the reintroduction effort.
“The important thing to us is now that the case is not being dismissed it means we do have a valid argument and it will be heard and hopefully it will give Mexican wolves a chance to recover,” Eva Sargent, director of Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest program, said Thursday.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said Thursday the agency has reviewed the ruling issued this week by U.S. District Judge David Bury in Tucson, Ariz. The agency plans to argue the merits of its actions related to the wolf program.
The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s. In 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million acre-plus territory interspersed with forests, private land and towns.
Biologists had hoped to have at least 100 wolves in the wild by now and 18 breeding pairs. The most recent survey shows there were 52 wolves, including two breeding pairs, scattered between New Mexico and Arizona at the end of 2008.
Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups are challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to create an oversight committee to manage reintroduction efforts.
The groups claim the agency relinquished its powers to other agencies rather than maintaining final authority to recover the wolves.
The groups also are challenging a controversial rule that calls for wolves to be permanently removed from the wild or killed if they prey on livestock three or more times within one year.
The agency did not remove any wolves in 2008 due to depredation, but it has said illegal killings were what hampered the species’ recovery over the last year. Five wolves were illegally shot and two others suffered a “suspicious demise.”
However, environmentalists accuse the agency of deflecting blame from its own management.
The Center for Biological Diversity points out that the agency removed 19 wolves from the wild in 2007 through trapping and shooting. That’s nearly three times the number of suspicious wolf deaths in 2008.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said the pending lawsuit seeks to rescind the three-strikes rule and restore authority from the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
If the groups get their way, Robinson said: “At least the Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t be able to hide behind other agencies in shirking their responsibilities. The decision would be right back in their corner and they would be held accountable on the basis of how well they perform.”
The plaintiffs in the case include Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, New Mexico Audubon Council, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, University of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, The Wildlands Project, Sierra Club, Southwest Environmental Center, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, WildEarth Guardians and The Rewilding Institute.