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Biodiversity: Some progress for Mexican gray wolves?

by Bob Berwyn

Feds propose updates to management of Southwest wolves

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Rare and beleaguered Mexican gray wolves may get a little more room to roam in the Southwest, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes changes to a recovery plan from the species, including new releases of captive-bred wolves to bolster wild populations.

The new releases could happen in new areas of New Mexico and parts of Arizona where there are no wolf packs yet, and the federal agency’s proposed changes would also allow wolves to roam from the Mexican border to Interstate 40, a much broader region than currently permitted.

Only 83 Mexican wolves live in the wilds of the Southwest, including just five breeding pairs. Scientists have shown that inbreeding caused by a lack of wolf releases to the wild, coupled with too many killings and removals of wolves, is causing smaller litter sizes and lower pup-survival rates in the wild population. Expanding wolf releases to New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, in particular, would enable managers to diversify the population through new releases and diminish inbreeding.

But the proposed rule also broadens guidelines allowing ranchers and others to kill Mexican wolves, a persistent problem that has hindered wolf recovery, according to wildlife advocates.

“We’re glad Mexican wolves will be allowed to roam more widely and will be introduced directly into New Mexico,” said the Center’s Michael Robinson. “But increasing the authority to kill wolves is disappointing and will further imperil them.”

In its revised proposed rule on management of the Mexican wolf population, which was reintroduced in 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service also proposes to grant broad authority to state agencies to kill wolves, including for “unacceptable impacts” to herds of elk, deer or other wild ungulates.

Mexican gray wolves have been managed as a nonessential, experimental population in the Southwest since 1998, with input from  cooperating state, federal and tribal agencies. The designation provides for increased management flexibility for populations that are reintroduced into a designated experimental area within their historical range.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is more committed than ever to working with diverse partners to promote a successful Mexican wolf program,” USFWS Southwest Regional Director Ben Tuggle said. “Over the last 16 years, we have learned much about managing a wild population of Mexican wolves, and it is clear that the current rule does not provide the clarity or the flexibility needed to effectively manage the experimental population in a working landscape. We need to remedy that so we can continue wolf reintroductions while being responsive to the diverse needs of local communities.”

Specifically, the 1998 regulations limit managers’ ability to achieve the necessary population growth, distribution and recruitment, the agency acknowledged in a release. Expanding the areas within which Mexican wolves can be released and disperse could help keep the gray wolf gene pool refreshed and contribute to a self-sustaining population of Mexican wolves on the landscape.

The proposed changes will be subject to 60 days of public comment, including two public hearings next month in Arizona and New Mexico. The Fish and Wildlife Service must finalize a new rule by Jan. 12, 2015, according to a legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Given the Arizona and New Mexico game commissions’ close ties to the livestock and hunting industries, handing them more discretion to kill Mexican wolves is like handing them loaded guns,” said Robinson. “Their record of aggressive hostility to the presence of wolves doesn’t bode well for these vulnerable animals.”

The federal proposal would also authorize the Fish and Wildlife Service or state agencies to allow ranchers and their agents to kill wolves, even those that may not have attacked domestic animals, on specified private or state-owned lands. As a result the proposal in part privatizes the killing of wolves, thereby restricting public oversight of activities fraught with opportunities for abuses such as killing more wolves than authorized or baiting wolves to their deaths.

Public hearings will be held:

  • Aug. 11, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Fort Apache Indian Reservation near Pinetop, Ariz.
  • Aug. 13, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Truth or Consequences, N.M.