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AZ NM: Public comments sought on changes in wolf management rules

BY Peter Aleshire Special to the Independent

What’s in a word like “essential?”

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

So the US Fish and Wildlife Service is once again seeking public comment on another interesting wrinkle in the 40-year effort to return the Mexican gray wolf to the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.

The USFWS is considering changes in its “10J” rule in managing a far-flung population of some 162 wild Mexican wolves.

The change defines three major questions.

First: Are the wolves “essential” or “non-essential” to the recovery of the species?

Currently the wild population of wolves is considered “experimental” and “non-essential” because the species would survive due to the population of captive wolves.

In 2017, the USFWS finalized the updated Mexican wolf recovery plan, originally adopted in 1982.

Then in 2018 Judge Jennifer Zipps ordered the USFWS to overhaul the 10J rule to take into account opinions of the scientists from the agency’s recovery team to bring the rule into harmony with the overall 2017 recovery plan.

The USFWS previously decided that so many wolves remain in captive breeding programs that the wild wolves aren’t “essential” to survival of the species. This provides more flexibility in the management of the wolves. For starters, the USFWS doesn’t have to designate “critical habitat” considered necessary for the species to survive. It also means other agencies like US Forest Service don’t have to formally consult with the USFWS when it comes to things like granting grazing leases in areas critical to the future of the wolves.

The “non-essential” designation gives federal managers more flexibility on killing or removing wolves that conflict with cattle or humans inside the designated overall recovery area — which includes much of Arizona and New Mexico south of I-40 in the 2017 plan.

In response to a federal court ruling and a pile of lawsuits, the USFWS is considering whether to instead label the wild wolves as “essential.” This could then lead to designation of critical habitat in the huge reintroduction area. And that could potentially lead to restrictions on other federally managed activities within that area.

The second question involves how the federal government will know when there are enough wolves reproducing in the wild that they no longer need protection as a threatened or endangered species. The existing 10J rule says the wolves will have recovered when the population hits 325, with an agreement to not let the population grow beyond that point. But that rule’s not consistent with the goals established in the 2017 recovery plan.

So the second proposed change in the 10J rule would say the wolves can be delisted once they’ve maintained an average population of 320 for at least eight years. That means in some years, their numbers could exceed 325.

Third, the USFWS is considering a change in the pace at which it releases additional, captive-reared wolves. Federal biologists have been introducing pups born in captivity into the dens of wild wolf mothers with pups of the same age. That’s intended to not only boost the population, but increase the genetic diversity of the wolves. All the Mexican wolves in the world today are descended from just seven remaining wolves captured in the wild back before 1982. Critics have suggested biologists should also release captive-born family groups to speed the population increase.

Those three possible changes come in response to a 2018 federal court ruling centered on the 2015 10J rule. A 60-day public comment period started last week.

Potential impact

So do three changes in the 10J rule represent a big deal – or a nitpick?

USFWS Public Affairs specialist Alislinn Maestas says the changes are narrowly centered on the judge’s ruling and the 10J rule. These changes won’t affect the overall recovery plan.

She said the biggest impact would come if the USFWS reclassifies the wild wolves as “essential,” triggering the much more formal consultation process with agencies like the Forest Service when it comes to government actions that have an impact on the wolves.

A change that results in the potential designation of critical habitat could conceivably have far-reaching effects, since the vast majority of that habitat is federal and subject to decisions by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Those agencies regulate timber harvesting and cattle grazing over a vast area. The USFWS might not end up designating any critical habitat at all – or it could designate large areas.

Separate lawsuit seeks to expand the wild population

In any case, the relatively narrow decision about the change in the 10J management rule remains just one of the legal fronts on which the USFWS must defend its effort to return the wolves to the wild.

A separate lawsuit seeking much more sweeping changes in the recovery plan adopted in 2017 continues to make its way through court.

Environmental groups and consulting biologists have argued the USFWS should establish at least three separate wolf populations within the reintroduction area, which covers half of two states. Currently, the reintroductions have all taken place in an area of eastern Arizona near Alpine and western New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.

Some of the suits claim a single, isolated wolf population of 300 wolves would still remain vulnerable to extinction from wildfires, drought, change in the prey base or hunting by humans. Environmental groups and some federal biologists have argued the USFWS should establish two or three separate populations, including one population along the Mexican border that can mingle with about 30 wolves in the Sierra Madre now managed by the Mexican government.

Judge Zipps concluded, “To ignore this dire warning was an egregious oversight by the agency.”

The last effort to overhaul the recovery plan ran into a buzz saw of opposition.

Ranchers complained the wolves in the existing recovery area were taking a steady toll on their herds, without adequate compensation from the federal government. Ranchers have leases to graze their herds on federal land throughout much of the existing wolf recovery area. About half of the 162 wolves recorded in the last census live in Arizona. Some ranchers say losses to the wolves could ultimately bankrupt their operations.

However, environmentalists supported the conclusions of the USFWS biologists that a single, limited population of the endangered wolf subspecies would remain much too vulnerable to extinction – after 20 years of costly effort to re-establish a self-sustaining wild population.

“Time is running out for the critically endangered Mexican wolves, said David Parsons, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery coordinator in a press release in support of the judge’s ruling in 2018. “This time the Fish and Wildlife Service must get it right – follow the law, follow the science, and push back on political interference. The wolves know best where to live and what their ecologically effective population size should be.”