By Trudy Balcom
APACHE COUNTY — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued its first update in 35 years to the recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf.
The Draft Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, first revision, was released to the public June 30. The 42-page plan outlines the current status and background of wolf recovery efforts, as well as providing a detailed recovery strategy. The recovery strategy lists specific goals that must be met before the Mexican gray wolf can be downgraded to threatened status, or delisted. The Draft Recovery Plan is accompanied by a 253-page Draft Biological Report which provides the detailed science on which the recovery plan is based.
Work on the recovery plan was prompted by a 2015 suit filed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Defenders of Wildlife against the USFWS, “for failing their statutory duty to develop an updated recovery plan to guide Mexican wolf recovery. The action was taken in an effort to spur development of an updated recovery plan for Mexican wolves … as legally required by the Endangered Species Act,” according to an AZGFD press release from June 2015.
In April 2016, the USFWS signed a settlement agreement which requires the final Recovery Plan to be completed by November.
Wildlife management agencies from Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, as well as other wildlife scientists from the U.S and Mexico, participated in the development of the recovery plan, according to an email from Chris Bagnoli, Pinetop regional supervisor for AZGFD and former Mexican wolf Interagency Field Team leader.
Building wild populations
key to survival
The draft plan calls for building both the population numbers and the genetic diversity of wild wolves in the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area — which encompasses all of New Mexico and Arizona south of Interstate 40.
The plan calls for similar growth in Mexico, which encompasses 90 percent of the animal’s historical range. The designated area of recovery in Mexico is primarily located in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Chihuahua, Sonora and Durango. Mexico only began reintroduction efforts for the wolf in 2011, while the first reintroduction in the U.S. began in 1998. Currently, wolves released in the U.S. and in Mexico are separated by about 280 miles — potentially close enough for the animals to disperse across the two nations’ shared border.
Creating two populations — one in the U.S and one in Mexico — that demonstrate “resiliency, redundancy and representation” is key to the animal’s survival, according to the draft plan. That means the population is large enough and has enough genetic diversity and suitable habitat to withstand random, negative impacts or even catastrophic impacts to population, as well as the ability to adapt to environmental changes.
According to the Draft Biological Report, the biggest threats to the survival of the species in the wild include illegal shooting, genetic issues and small population. Seventy percent of all wild wolf mortalities are “human-related,” according to the Draft Biological Report, and include illegal shooting, trapping and vehicle collisions.
Recovery by the numbers
So how many wolves are enough? That’s the question area ranchers, biologists and wolf supporters want to know and are likely to dispute.
“We consider a population that has a 90 percent probability of persistence over 100 years to contribute to achieving recovery criteria,” the Draft Plan states.
According to the plan, that number is 320 wolves counted in the wild each year for eight consecutive years. If those criteria are reached, the USFWS will consider de-listing Mexican gray wolves.
The most recent annual count for the Mexican gray wolf in the U.S. showed a minimum of 113 wolves in the wild; in Mexico there are currently about 28 wild wolves.
“We expect that the status of the Mexican gray wolf to improve as such that we can down-list to threatened status in 16-20 years,” the plan states. The Mexican wolf may be eligible for delisting in 25-35 years, the plan estimates.
Cost of Recovery
Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction (only seven Mexican wolves were known to have survived in the late 1970s) is not cheap. The Draft Plan estimates it will cost nearly $263 million. It is unclear from the report if this number includes the amount already spent since the inception of the recovery program in the late 1970s.
The projected budget includes $1.6 million annually to manage the wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico, $1 million per year in compensation for ranchers for depredation, $400,000 annually for law enforcement to investigate illegal shooting of wolves, and $500,000 annually for wolf education and outreach.
Public comment open
The public can review the plan and comment on it until Aug. 29. A public meetings on the plan is scheduled for 6-9 p.m. July 19 at the Hon-Dah Resort Casino Banquet Hall, 777 State Highway 260, near Pinetop.
To review the Draft Plan visit the USFWS Southwest Region homepage at www.fws.gov/southwest/ and click on the link for the plan; or you can visit the USFWS Mexican wolf homepage at www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf.
To comment on the plan, visit www.regulations.gov and enter docket number FWS-R2-ES-2017-0036. Written comments can be mailed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R2-ES-2017-0036, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.