Alex Devoid, The Republic | azcentral.com
Over 60 business leaders have urged the federal government to release endangered Mexican gray wolves into the Grand Canyon region, expanding the predator’s habitat beyond eastern Arizona.
The group submitted a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service criticizing the agency’s long-awaited recovery plan released in June because it confined the recovery zone south of Interstate 40.
The business leaders include owners, managers and independent contractors, among others, from the tourism and service industries in northern Arizona and southern Utah.
Gray wolves in the region would benefit the tourism industry and the ecosystem, the business leaders wrote, citing such benefits associated with gray wolf recovery near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana.
Researchers at the University of Montana have estimated wolf tourism brings $35.5 million a year to the Yellowstone region.
And gray wolf reintroduction at the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in Arizona and New Mexico benefits the economy by an estimated $3.2 to 3.8 million a year, according researchers at Defenders of Wildlife and State University of New York.
Wolves also strengthened Yellowstone’s ecosystem, where they preyed on older elk and animals with infirmities, according to researchers at Defenders of Wildlife.
The business leaders urged the wildlife service “to resist the efforts of narrow political interests that undermine (the gray wolf’s) recovery.”
Governors’ letter sets boundary
The agency’s recovery plan is in line with requests outlined in a 2015 letter by governors from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The letter, to the Department of Interior and the wildlife service, urged the government to restrict recovery zones below I-40.
The governors claimed available science indicates the wolves’ historical range did not extend north of I-40.
To establish the Mexican grey wolf north of I-40, outside of their historical range, would be unlawful, said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
He echoed the governors’ letter, which claimed the Endangered Species Act does not “specifically authorize” re-establishing a species outside its historical range.
DeVos cited two studies, one in 1996 and another in 2017, that do not include habitat above I-40 in the Mexican gray wolf’s historical range.
A recovery team commissioned by the wildlife service concluded differently in a 2012 recovery plan, which the agency did not distribute for review.
Researchers have described the wolf’s historical range in multiple ways, according to the recovery team. But it determined the historical range included the Grand Canyon region as one of only three core areas of suitable habitat.
The Mexican gray wolf has historically migrated hundreds of miles to find prey, said Emily Renn, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, an advocacy group.
“It’s really hard to define a hard line boundary on an animal that could travel such great distances,” she said.
Two different goals
The 2012 plan would have waited to delist the wolves from the endangered-species list until the number rose to three populations of 750 for eight years. The agency’s current recovery plan sets the delisting threshold at two populations — 320 wolves in the U.S. and 170 in Mexico — for eight years.
Three populations of wolves would ultimately promote diversity and more resiliency within the species to such threats as disease and inbreeding, Renn said.
Mexican gray wolves could breed with northern gray wolves if released north of I-40, which would threaten the wolves’ recovery, deVos said. The northern gray wolf’s genes are more diverse and could dominate that of the Mexican gray wolf, he said.
Renn does not want to see Mexican gray wolves lose their unique characteristics. But they are territorial and could prevent the expansion of northern gray wolves if released in the Grand Canyon region, she said, adding that some cross-breeding would be natural.
The Mexican gray wolf is already recovering successfully without establishing a population north of I-40, deVos said. And while its full recovery requires “social tolerance,” such as methods ranchers use to coexist with wolves, he anticipates more years of success to come.
The Mexican gray wolf population is currently 113, Renn said. “To call that successful is a stretch. … We are a long way from recovery.”
The public comment period is open until Tuesday. Comments may be submitted at www.regulations.gov by entering FWS-R2-ES-2017-0036.