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NM: Politics plagues wolf recovery in the Southwest

States not keen on sharing territory with top-tier predators

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — If there were ever any doubts that politics is a huge factor in the management of some endangered species, the continuing back-and-forth between state and federal officials over recovery of the endangered Mexican wolf in the Southwest should put them to rest.

The exchange of emails and letters going back several years shows clearly that some state officials are resisting the recovery effort by challenging population targets and habitat designations, and, that in some cases, federal officials may be giving in, even though they are charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act and required to use the best available science to make their decisions.

The ongoing tug-of-war has prompted an environmental advocacy and whistleblower watchdog group to file a formal scientific integrity complaint with the Department of Interior, where a spokesman said it would be reviewed under standard procedures.

Click here to read the complaint, which includes numerous excerpts from emails and letters, as well as other citations.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility director Jeff Ruch said that, in the case of wolf recovery, the Obama administration is failing to live up to its pledge to shield science from the political manipulation that tainted the department under the Bush administration.

“The science on Mexican wolf recovery has become a political football,” Ruch said. “The time for political negotiation comes after the scientific work is done.  In this instance, Obama officials are attempting to improperly pre-negotiate the science to accommodate political partners.”

Leaders of the federal recovery effort have acknowledged that some states are resisting the recovery effort and emphasize their efforts to work collaboratively with partners to educate the public and patiently build support for wolf recovery.

Realistically, recovering species like wolves is as much a social and political issue as it is a biological one, and efforts to restore populations in the Southwest likely won’t succeed without at least a modicum of public and political support.

But on the ground, Mexican wolves are struggling to hold their own against illegal hunting and other pressures, and wolf recovery advocates would like to see more wolves released into the wild to boost populations.

The Mexican wolf is one of the most endangered mammals in North America. The wild population was rebuilt from four wolves in 1998 to 55 in 2003, when states started targeting what they said were “problem” wolves killing livestock.

In 2010, federal biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that illegal killings, genetic inbreeding and lack of an updated management plan “threaten the population with failure.”

Subsequently, the agency convened an eight-member science and planning subgroup for the wolf recovery team, determining that a best-case scenario for recovery would require three populations of 200-350 wolves connected by corridors. They also found the best suitable habitat for reintroduction included southern Colorado and southern Utah.

According to PEER, the political push-back within the agency and from the states against these scientific findings has been unrelenting. Internal emails and letters between federal and state officials show that that there was pressure to lower the number of wolves, and Utah officials said they would bring up the issue in Congress.

In one case, the regional director of the USFWS requested that the group replace mention of connectivity requirements with language referring to dispersal by mechanical or natural means.

Ultimately, the regional USFWS director delayed the subgroup planning effort, a decision PEER claims was made because of outside pressure.

Under Department of Interior rules, the PEER complaint is supposed to trigger an independent scientific review with findings and potential discipline for responsible officials.  Since these policies have been in effect, however, there have been several complaints but no reported findings of scientific misconduct.

“The Obama administration is skewing scientific work for political purposes in precisely the same way they accused Bush appointees of doing,” Ruch said.  “Publicly exposing these behind-the-scenes manipulations may be the best way to end them.”