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NM: Feds calls for comment on 2017 Mexican gray wolf plan

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the most aggressive recovery plan in recent years for the Mexican gray wolf, is proposing to release two packs of adult and young wolves in New Mexico this year, as well as place captive-born pups with wild litters.

John Bradley, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said the agency intends to apply for a permit with the state in order to move forward with the releases.

A federal district judge stopped wolf releases last year after the state sued because Fish and Wildlife didn’t have the state’s approval. Fish and Wildlife and its parent agency, the U.S. Interior Department, are challenging the ruling in a case before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Fish and Wildlife’s draft plan for 2017, which was released this week, builds on successful cross-fostering efforts launched last year. Cross-fostering involves placing captive-born pups into wild dens with similarly aged pups. Fish and Wildlife reported the birth of a litter from a cross-fostered wolf.

Environmental groups said the draft plan and the proposed 2017 wolf releases are an important step in the species’ survival and signal the federal government is optimistic it will win in court.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, along with 18 other states, sued last spring after Fish and Wildlife released two 9-day-old wolf pups in Catron County. The state said the federal agency had not gained its approval or the requisite permits needed to release the wolves.

The federal agency also had intended to release one pack in New Mexico, but that effort was blocked in court. The court allowed the already-released wolf pups to remain in the wild.

The Department of the Interior, which has been joined by the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife in the lawsuit, maintains it has legal authority to override the state under the Endangered Species Act and says it conducts careful oversight of the wolves it releases into the wild. The releases help create genetic diversity for a largely inbred population.

State agencies and residents in Catron County, as well as U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., say the federal wolf program has been poorly managed and the jurisdiction of species management should lie in state hands. They say the wolves cause conflict with large-game management, kill livestock and threaten communities.

They also argue that Fish and Wildlife must complete a new recovery plan for the species, which dates back to 1982. A separate lawsuit ordered the agency to issue a new plan by November of this year.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association, says the community still feels left out of the planning process.

“We have just had wolves dumped on us and we have had to fight back,” she said.

Cowan said landowners aren’t able to shoot wolves on federal land without penalty, but federal and private land frequently border each other. She wants ranchers to have the same rights to defend themselves from wolves on federal land.

“We have to have the power to protect ourselves, our families, our pets and our livestocks,” she said. “Then we can have a conversation.”

Mexican gray wolves were listed as an endangered species in 1976, and the federal government says it has the right to import and release wolves on federal land in order to protect the species from extinction.

Federal legislation was introduced last year, with the support of Pearce, that called for defunding the federal wolf program and giving management authority to states.

The 2017 draft release plan, which is now open for public comment and amendment, says Fish and Wildlife plans to release a pack in each of the Gila and Aldo Leopold wildernesses. Each pack would have a mating pair, a 1-year-old wolf and whatever puppies are produced by the adult wolves.

An estimated four captive wolf pups — which must be less than 10 days old — also would be released into wild packs with pups of similar age under the plan. Adult wolves already in the wild would be relocated as needed within the management area.

Releases this year are planned between April and June and would occur only on federal land.

Bryan Bird, Southwest director of Defenders of Wildlife, said the federal plan is a good tactic but too reliant on cross-fostering, which can be risky because it requires captive pups to be born in synchronicity with wild litters.

“The wolves are racing extinction right now and we need the resources of the federal government,” he said.

On Thursday, Arizona Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain filed a bill, for the second year, that would compel Fish and Wildlife to issue a wolf recovery plan for Arizona and New Mexico within six months of the bill’s adoption. The agency would be required to include state, individual and corporate interests as a “crucial component to the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf.”

The legislation also would ban wolves north of Interstate 40 — prohibiting wolf releases in the Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountains — and would require maximum wolf population numbers to be set by states. It also would establish guidelines for how to reduce any excess population, as well as guidelines for what constitutes “unacceptable impact” on wild game and livestock.

Michael Robinsonof the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement that the “anti-wolf bill” allows the interests of ranchers to govern wolf recovery rather than science.

“This legislation doesn’t just let the fox guard the hen house — it gives the fox title and deed,” he said. “I’m afraid that passage of this bill would set the Southwest’s struggling wolves irreversibly on a one-way trail to extinction.”