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NM: Fish and Wildlife Service plan calls for release of 12 newborn wolf pups

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to release 12 newborn Mexican wolf pups in New Mexico and Arizona over the coming year as part of its strategy to recover an endangered species that suffers from severe inbreeding and weak genetics.

The Mexican wolf is facing a “genetic bottleneck,” the service said, adding that, “on average, individuals within the population are as related to one another as full siblings.”

Over 2018, a dozen captive pups will be matched with wild litters that have been born at roughly the same time as the domestic-bred pups, according to a plan released by the service Monday. The plan also outlines temporarily removing an adult female wolf from the Panther Creek Pack in Arizona, to avoid direct inter-sibling breeding, and allowing her to instead mate with an adult male from captivity.

Fish and Wildlife’s plan comes less than a week since the agency finalized an overall management plan for the Mexican wolves. The document drew criticism from ranchers and environmentalists alike, each dissatisfied with how the federal government intends to address the future of the wolves in the Southwest.

The plan outlines recovering 320 wolves south of Interstate 40 in New Mexico and Arizona, which would nearly triple the current populations, and establishing an additional 200 animals in Mexico. At this rate, recovery, and beginning to remove the species from the U.S. Endangered Species Act, is expected in 25 to 30 years at a cost of $178 million.

But conservation advocates said the number of animals the agency cites for “recovery” falls more than 200 short of what is needed to see the wolves thrive; it would fail to create genetic diversity, they contend. Legal action is being prepared by environmental groups against the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees Fish and Wildlife Service.

On Monday, conservationists again expressed dismay on the agency’s plans.

“It is not nearly enough to address the genetic crisis the wolf population is facing,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Assuming Fish and Wildlife is able to coordinate the birth of wild and captive litters, which requires pups to be just days apart in age, Robinson said the survival of cross-breeding pups is still too low to create a noticeable genetic impact.

“It is just not enough. … They should just release these pups that would be cross-fostered with their parents in new areas,” he said.

Bryan Bird, with Defenders of Wildlife, also said a plan that does not include adult wolf releases is insufficient for recovery. He also fears states may seek to force the federal government to remove a wild pup for each captive pup released, but that is not written into the current plan.

“We are disappointed that the program is expanding,” said Caren Cowan, with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, “but this was to be expected, to be quite honest.”

Ranchers are compensated by the federal government and environmental groups for livestock killed by wolves, but Cowan said compensation should be improved and should include the extra management time it takes to protect livestock and for pounds lost by the animals as a result of predating stresses.

“We will continue on our path to achieve some fairness to the ranchers and their families that are involved,” she said.