ENDANGERED SPECIES

FWS triples population goal for Mexican wolves, draws fire from enviros

Under a controversial plan that would give Mexican wolves more room to roam but make it easier for people to kill them, the Fish and Wildlife Service today tripled the population target for the experimental recovery effort and took steps to protect herds of elk and other large animals from the predators.

FWS is seeking to increase the number of Mexican wolves in southern Arizona and New Mexico from about 83 to between 300 and 325 -- up from 100 wild wolves called for in a 1982 recovery plan. The goal was updated after the Arizona Game and Fish Commission expressed concerns that the service wouldn't set a hard cap for wolves in the region (Greenwire, Oct. 9).

At the same time, FWS is clarifying what it would consider to be an "unacceptable impact" of the expansion on populations of wild elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and bison in the region: a decline of 15 percent or one that violates state management goals. If such impacts occur, state regulators can ask the service to approve actions ranging from capturing and relocating problem wolves to killing them.

To assuage fears of Arizona wildlife managers about vulnerable elk populations west of state Highway 87, which cuts through the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix, the service also intends to phase in a plan to expand the "experimental population area," where wolves can roam, by 28 percent, or 33,995 square miles, over the course of a dozen years.

Those were the biggest changes from the draft environmental impact statement issued earlier this year for an overhaul of the 16-year-old recovery program, Sherry Barrett, FWS' Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, said in an interview. Conservationists panned that initial proposal for not expanding the area enough and allowing people to kill wolves that are attacking their livestock or pets (Greenwire, July 25).

Although most of the new territory will be south of Interstate 10, which bisects Arizona and cuts through southwest New Mexico, the plan will also slightly shrink its southeastern edge by removing a 1,456-square-mile portion of West Texas from the experimental population area. It would also do away with the two "recovery areas," where Mexican wolves could be introduced, and divide the land they would be allowed on into three zones with stricter management toward the eastern and western edges of the space.

The revisions were first outlined in yesterday's final EIS as FWS' "preferred alternative" scenario and are due to be formally confirmed today in its draft record of decision.

"We believe the preferred alternative strikes the best balance in terms of what is needed to re-establish a genetically diverse wolf population while supporting the interests of other stakeholders on a working landscape," Benjamin Tuggle, the director of the service's southwest region, said in a statement. He noted that the draft decision was reached after reviewing more than 40,000 comments and consulting with state agencies, tribes and other stakeholders.

'One step forward and two steps back'

But conservationists such as Eva Sargent, the director of Southwest programs at Defenders of Wildlife, remain unsatisfied with the new plan. "The Service's latest decision regarding the Mexican gray wolf takes one step forward and two steps back and will ultimately hinder the recovery of the imperiled lobos," she said yesterday in a news release, using the Spanish word for wolves.

"While it allows wolf releases and dispersal over a broader area, it promises to keep Mexican wolves out of habitats they need to recover," Sargent said, reiterating her earlier complaint about the plan.

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Some conservationists and wildlife scientists would like to see additional wolf populations established near the Grand Canyon and in the northern New Mexico and southern Colorado regions. "It also allows increased killing of these iconic and endangered lobos, and it caps the population at an unjustifiably low level," she said.

Sargent added, "When the best science tells you that Mexican gray wolves need two new populations, and that they can't recover unless their killing is reduced, it doesn't make sense to do the opposite." In an email elaborating on her concerns with the proposal, she warned it could allow "wolf haters" to "stake out pound dogs to attract wolves and shoot them."

Sargent's critiques of the plan are echoed in a critical joint statement released today by WildEarth Guardians and six other conservation groups.

Defenders and one of Barrett's predecessors as FWS Mexican wolf recovery coordinator are part of a group that is suing the Obama administration in an attempt to force the service to update its 32-year-old recovery plan for the highly endangered species (Greenwire, Nov. 12).

FWS has acknowledged that a new recovery plan could aid conservationists in their efforts to expand the wolves' experimental population area and numbers.

The northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico contain "extensive suitable habitat for Mexican wolves," the final EIS said.

"Whether or not this area would contribute to Mexican wolf recovery, particularly in light of the potential threat of climate change, would be expected to be addressed in the development of a new recovery plan," the document said, noting that warming weather could make the southern part of the wolves' range less habitable.

Furthermore, Barrett noted that the 325-wolf cap "is not a recovery goal, it's simply a population objective for this experimental population" in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

"We think that that population can then contribute toward a bigger recovery effort in the future," she added. "We don't know what that overall recovery target is right now, but we'll be completing a recovery plan in the future to determine it."

Deadlines loom

Weighing less than 90 pounds and growing to be no more than 6 feet long, the Mexican wolf is the smallest and rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America.

Once common throughout much of the Southwest, the patchy black-, brown- and cream-colored canids were all but eliminated from the wild by the 1970s.

Efforts were then made to breed lobos in captivity. In 1998, the U.S. government released 11 wolves back into the wild in the Apache and Gila national forests on an experimental basis.

Mexican wildlife officials followed suit in October 2011 and have released 14 wolves through August 2014. But the final EIS notes there are only about seven remaining in Mexico, five of which are pups.

FWS will accept comments on its draft decision through Dec. 27. Thanks to a court settlement, the service must issue a final ruling on the program by Jan. 12.

Twitter: @corbinhiar | Email: chiar@eenews.net

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