By Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer – Las Cruces Bureau
After a nearly two-year impasse, New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish has permitted the release of two Mexican gray wolves into the wild — under the condition that the federal government remove two wild-born wolves to captivity.
The permit signed this week grants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the right to import two wolf pups fewer than 14 days old and place them into a wild den in New Mexico.
But the permit also requires that, for each wolf pup that is “cross-fostered” into a wild den, another wolf pup must be removed.
The permit comes just a week after a U.S. Court of Appeals reaffirmed Fish and Wildlife’s authority over the wolf program under the Endangered Species Act.
The 10th Circuit in Tucson on April 25 lifted an injunction, sought by Game and Fish, that temporarily prevented the federal government from releasing the wolves in New Mexico.
While the permit results in no net increase in the wild wolf population in New Mexico, fostering two wolves bred in captivity into a wild den could improve genetic diversity in the wild — one key goal of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf recovery program.
Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, called the permit “a sordid bargain.”
“Game and Fish, having just lost at the 10th circuit Court of Appeals, decided to bluff and demand things that they have no legal right to demand,” he said. “Maybe they are as surprised as I am that Fish and Wildlife actually acquiesced to this.”
A spokesman for Fish and Wildlife confirmed that a permit had been issued but declined to comment further.
A Game and Fish spokesman did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The permit, which expires May 31, appears to cede authority over the wolves introduced under the permit to the state, Robinson said.
The permit states “that the animals brought into New Mexico under its provisions, and all their subsequent progeny, will be subject to state laws and rules.”
Ranchers who live in the wolf recovery area — in New Mexico, largely in and around the Gila National Forest — vehemently oppose the reintroduction of an apex predator — one at the top of a food chain upon which no other animals prey — in the area.
Wolves have been known to prey on cattle, and a federal program meant to compensate ranchers for wolf predations doesn’t cover every suspected kill, ranchers say.
“I don’t think it’s fair for us,” said Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association. “Nothing’s been fair for ranching. That’s all they’re doing is trading one set of genes for another, hoping they’ll create differently related wolves, a little less inbred. They are spending more on genetics than what they need to spend on mitigation.”
The wolf population nearly went extinct in the 1970s. Recovery managers have been struggling with improving the genetic diversity of a population descended from just seven wolves. It’s worse in the wild than in captivity, advocates say.
Bryan Bird, a wolf advocate with Defenders of Wildlife in Santa Fe, said, “The state is imposing unreasonable conditions.”
“It’s immoral to request for these puppies to be taken out of the wild,” he said.
There were 113 Mexican wolves in the recovery area in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico in early 2017. That was up from 97 wolves in the wild the prior year.