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AZ: Feds settle on controversial Wolf plan

by Peter Aleshire
roundup editor

If you define success as making everyone on both sides mad at you — then the latest plan for the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf ranks as a big success.

After a year of sound and fury, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has settled on a $178.4 million recovery plan intended to increase the number of wolves in the wild from 144 to 520 in the United States and Mexico in the course of the next 35 years.

The recovery area for the wolves would expand from the current range in far-east-central Arizona and western New Mexico. The new introduction area would include about a quarter of Arizona south of Interstate 40 including the Mogollon Rim area of north-central Arizona and western New Mexico, plus a large swath of the Sierra Madre Occidental range.

Environmental groups hate the plan. They say the federal government ignored the recommendations of its own experts and adopted a plan doomed to failure.

Cattle growers and hunters also hate the plan. They say the federal government wants way too many wolves spread out over much too large an area.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has persisted in its already decade-long effort to establish populations in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, augmented as necessary with pups born in captivity and smuggled into the dens of the wild wolves.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, Wildlife Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife have already vowed to file lawsuits to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the introduced wolves to spread out across a much larger area that would include the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Utah and Colorado.

Currently, about 113 wolves live in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico in a wilderness area roughly centered on Alpine. Another 31 wolves live in the Sierra Madres of northern Mexico. The USFWS plan aims to increase that number to 320 in the U.S. and 200 in Mexico in the next eight years.

The number of wolves in the wild in the U.S. has stalled at around 100 in the past several years, largely due to people shooting wolves and the recapture of wolves who either attack cattle or wander out of the reintroduction area.

Another 281 Mexican gray wolves continue to live in captivity. Recently, USFWS has had success in taking pups born in captivity and slipping them into the dens of wolves in the wild with pups of the same age. The foster parents move their dens when disturbed, but have so far proven willing to raise the introduced pups.

In several cases, those fostered pups have adapted readily to the wild and started families of their own. The captive born, wild-raised wolves do far better at adapting to the wild than wolves raised to adulthood in captivity and then released.

The captive breeding program combined with the foster-parent program remains the best chance of maintaining some genetic diversity in the packs of wild wolves. All the known Mexican gray wolves descended from the last seven of their species captured and placed in captive breeding programs. This can create a dangerous genetic bottleneck.

For instance, most of the breeding pairs of wolves in Arizona are related to a single, successful pair of wolves in the original release group. As a result, most of the wolves producing young right now are essentially brothers and sisters, resulting in potentially harmful inbreeding. The federal biologists have used the foster pups to cope with the problem — as well as sometimes capturing closely related wolves to keep them from mating.

Longtime critics of the reintroduction effort have blasted it from one side or the other.

For instance, cattle ranchers say they haven’t received enough compensation to make up for the loss of cattle to the wolves. They mostly rely on federal rangeland for their cattle operations, but say when wolves move in they lose money. Not only do the wolves kill calves and even adult cattle every year — they make the cattle so skittish and restless they lose weight.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake issued a news release calling the release plan “another federal regulatory nightmare for ranchers and Arizona’s rural communities.”

The Cattle Growers Association urged the USFWS to trim the goal for the U.S. population of wolves to 100 and boost the target population in Mexico to 400.

However, the first USFWS recovery coordinator biologist David Parsons said the plan seems more likely to lead to the extinction of the wolves than to their recovery.

Biologists originally pushed for a population goal of 750 in a 2012 draft of the recovery plan. The USFWS never actually released that plan, in the face of the opposition from local officials in four states.

That plan would have expanded the reintroduction area further to include the Grand Canyon, and southern Utah. It would also establish a new reintroduction area in the southern Rocky Mountains in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

They argue that the limits on the range of the wolves has stalled the program for the past five years, with only minimal growth in the wild population despite the millions spent on the effort.