By Maddy Hayden / Journal Staff Writer
Though environmental groups are relieved to see an updated recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf that was more than 30 years in the making, they’re dissatisfied with its recommendations.
A state cattle ranchers’ group doesn’t think much of the plan, either.
A draft of the new plan, which will replace one created in 1982, was released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on June 20 as part of a settlement reached with environmental groups.
Groups on both sides of the debate have been critical of the plan, including ranchers, environmental groups and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation. FWS maintains its research and plan is scientifically valid.
The proposal suggests the subspecies be taken off the endangered species list once its U.S. population reaches 320 individuals and its population in Mexico reaches 170.
At last count, there were 113 Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. at the end of 2016 and 28 in Mexico as of April 2017.
Bird said FWS research by wolf experts in 2012 had concluded that three U.S. populations totaling 750 individuals would be optimal for the subspecies’ recovery.
“We think 320 in the U.S. is not enough to get the genetic recovery that is going to be required to take the animal off the list,” he said.
Both sides of the debate criticized the plan’s consideration of the size of the Mexican gray wolf population before delisting could occur.
The genetic diversity of the wild population of the wolves has been a cornerstone of many groups’ concerns.
A July 14 letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service from Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and 29 other pro-wolf reintroduction groups called for the more frequent release of wolves from captivity, including a female that was captured after crossing into Arizona from Mexico in March.
Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich also voiced concerns over the population’s genetic makeup.
“I am concerned that the current plan will not achieve the genetic diversity that is critical to a successful recovery of the Mexican wolf,” Heinrich said in a statement.
The plan also stipulates that the U.S. population be restricted to an area south of Interstate 40 from New Mexico’s eastern border to Arizona’s western border, which Bird said will further limit the recovery. The 2012 federal research team had recommended areas in the northern Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains as ideal population sites.
“The scientists recommended that because those are the best habitats available, meaning the highest populations of deer and elk, the lowest density of roads and the lowest density of cows,” Bird said.
The states of Colorado and Utah expressed extreme opposition to the habitat reaching north of the interstate, as that area is outside of the wolf’s historic range, which is mostly in Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said in a statement he believes Mexico should be expected to take on more responsibility in the recovery of the subspecies.
“First and foremost, Mexico is not being forced to carry their weight in recovery,” he said. “The plan straps all of the burden of recovery on New Mexico and Arizona even though the majority of the historic habitat is in Mexico.”
The plan gives ultimate authority to New Mexico and Arizona to “determine the timing, location and circumstances of releases of wolves into the wild within their respective states.”
The state of New Mexico sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 to require releases to be permitted through the state’s Department of Game and Fish. The litigation is pending.
Defenders of Wildlife will voice opposition to the plan during a public meeting today at the Crowne Plaza hotel at 1901 University Blvd. in Albuquerque, where representatives from the Fish and Wildlife Service will present plan details and answer questions. They are not taking comments to include in the official record.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association that opposed the original endangered listing of the wolf, said she has discouraged members from attending the public meetings.
“We have found them to be valueless,” Cowan said. “Ranchers get verbally abused by the other side at these meetings.”
She does, however, expect association members to be active in submitting public comments on the plan.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” she said.
The plan expects the subspecies recovery to take 25 to 35 years and more than $262 million to complete, with a change of status to “threatened” to take 16 to 20 years.
“I would like to think we could resolve this within my lifetime,” she said.
Official public comments will be accepted electronically at www.regulations.gov (Docket FWS-R2-ES-2017-0036) and in writing through Aug. 29.
The plan must be finalized by Nov. 30, according to the settlement agreement.