What’s in a word?
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is once again seeking public comment on another interesting wrinkle in the 40-year effort to return Mexican wolves to the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.
The USFWS is considering changes in its 10J rule in managing a far-flung population of some 163 Mexican wolves.
The change addresses three major questions.
First, are the wolves “essential” or “non-essential” to the recovery of the species?
The 163 wolves in the wild are considered an experimental “non-essential” population. The USFWS previously decided that so many wolves remain in captive breeding programs that the wild wolves aren’t “essential” to survival of the species. This provides more flexibility in the management of the wolves. For starters, the USFWS doesn’t have to designate “critical habitat” considered necessary for the species to survive. It also means other agencies like the U.S. Forest Service don’t have to formally consult with the USFWS in things like granting grazing leases in areas critical to the future of the wolves.
In response to a federal court ruling and a pile of lawsuits, the USFWS is considering whether to instead label the wild wolves as “essential.” This could then lead to designation of critical habitat in the huge reintroduction area. And that might lead to restrictions on other federal activities within that area.
Second question involves how the federal government will know when enough wolves are reproducing in the wild that they no longer need protection as a threatened or endangered species. The existing 10J rule says the wolves will have recovered when the population hits 325, with an agreement to not let the population grow beyond that point. But that rule’s not consistent with the goals established in the 2017 recovery plan.
So the second proposed change in the 10J rule would say the wolves can be delisted once they’ve maintained an average population of 320 for at least eight years. That means in some years, their numbers could exceed 325.
Finally, the USFWS is considering a change in the pace at which it releases additional, captive-reared wolves. Federal biologists have been introducing pups born in captivity into the wild wolf dens of mothers with pups of the same age. That’s intended to not only boost the population, but increase the genetic diversity of the wolves. All the Mexican wolves in the world today are descended from seven wolves captured in the wild back before 1982. Critics have suggested biologists should also release captive-born family groups to speed the population increase.
Those three possible changes come in response to a 2018 federal court ruling centered on the 2015 10J rule, with the 60-day comment period starting last week.
A separate lawsuit seeking much more sweeping changes in the recovery plan adopted in 2017 continues to make its way through court. Environmental groups and consulting biologists have argued the USFWS should establish at least three separate wolf populations within the reintroduction area, which covers half of two states. Currently, the reintroductions have all taken place in a tiny portion of that range centered on Alpine, in both Arizona and New Mexico.
So do three changes in the 10J rule represent a big deal — or a nitpick?
USFWS public affairs specialist Aislinn Maestas says the changes are narrowly centered on the judge’s ruling and the 10J rule. These changes won’t affect the overall recovery plan.
She said the biggest impact would come if the USFWS reclassifies the wild wolves as “essential,” triggering the much more formal consultation process with agencies like the Forest Service in government actions that impact the wolves.
However, a change that results in the potential designation of critical habitat could conceivably have far-reaching effects, since the vast majority of that habitat is federal and subject to decisions by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Those agencies regulate timber harvesting and cattle grazing over a vast area. The USFWS might not end up designating any critical habitat at all – or it could designate large areas.
The relatively narrow decision about the change in the 10J management rule remains just one of the legal fronts on which the USFWS must defend its effort to return the wolves to the wild.
Back in 2018, Judge Jennifer Zipps ordered the USFWS to overhaul the rule to take into account opinions of the scientists from the agency’s recovery team to bring the rule into harmony with the overall, 2017 recovery plan.
That 2017 plan itself remains the object of lawsuits, some of which claim a single, isolated wolf population of 300 wolves would remain vulnerable to extinction from wildfires, drought, change in the prey base or hunting by humans. Environmental groups and some federal biologists have argued the USFWS should establish two or three separate populations, including one population along the Mexican border that can mingle with about 30 wolves in the Sierra Madre now managed by the Mexican government.Judge Zipps concluded, “To ignore this dire warning was an egregious oversight by the agency.”
The plan to overhaul the management rule comes in the wake of a 24% increase in the wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico in 2019, to 163 wolves.
The expensive effort to reintroduce the wolves has struggled for 20 years, plagued by low survival rates by the pups, genetic inbreeding, conflicts with ranchers, frequent killings of wolves by humans and other problems. The first 11 captive-reared wolves were released in 1998.
Shortly after announcing the big population increase in 2019, United States Department of Agriculture wildlife managers killed four wolves who had been preying on cattle. Environmental groups blasted that decision, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service had for 20 years refused to issue guidelines on managing cattle in wolf territory. Studies show ranchers can reduce losses to wolves by keeping cows and young calves in enclosures early on and taking other precautions. The group urged the federal government to retire grazing allotments in areas with frequent wolf-cattle conflicts.
In late March, someone killed two wolves near Pinetop in the White Mountains. The USFWS has offered a $37,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever killed the wolves, whose bodies were found on March 22 and March 23. Officials are hoping someone might have seen a vehicle driving slowly or stopped off Porter Mountain Road.
How to Comment on Wolf Rule Revision
How to Comment on Wolf Recovery Plan:
To see the Notice of Intent go to: https://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/listing10j.html.
Submit comments electronically at http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. FWS-R2-ES-2020-0007, which is the docket number for this Notice of Intent.
Submit hard copy comments by mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R2-ES-2020-0007 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/PERMA (JAO/1N), 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.
Submit comments must by 11:59 p.m. ET on June 15, 2020.
For information on the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program go to https://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/.