The Mexican gray wolf recovery effort took a pivotal turn in the right direction today as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclaimed its decision-making authority over management of this highly endangered animal that roams Arizona and New Mexico’s backcountry.
Settling a lawsuit brought by conservation organizations, the Fish and
Wildlife Service reasserted its authority over a multiagency management team
and scrapped a controversial wolf “control” rule that required permanently
removing a wolf from the wild, either lethally or through capture, after
killing three livestock in a year. Conservationists had criticized the rigid
policy, known as Standard Operating Procedure 13 or SOP 13, for forcing
wolves to be killed or sent to captivity regardless of an individual wolf’s
genetic importance, dependent pups or the critically low numbers of wolves
in the wild.
“We’re happy to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once again accepting its responsibility for recovering these endangered wolves,” said Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest program director. “With so few Mexican wolves in the wild, we need to restore the role of science – and this is a good step in that direction. Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service must begin to develop a credible recovery plan.”
At last count in January 2009, there were just 52 Mexican gray wolves and only two breeding pairs in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico. Another count will take place in January 2010. Before reintroduction began in 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service had projected 102 wolves including 18 breeding pairs by the end of 2006, with numbers expected to rise thereafter.
For several years, the Mexican Wolf Adaptive Management Oversight Committee, also known as AMOC, had called the shots on whether or not a wolf would stay in the wild. AMOC was organized to bring other agencies to the table, but the Fish and Wildlife Service – in an unusual move – had ceded control of the Mexican gray wolf’s reintroduction to the committee.
Under AMOC’s direction, the Mexican gray-wolf recovery effort became less about helping this endangered wolf return to its home range and more about wolf control and appeasing anti-wolf interests in the recovery area.
“With the Mexican gray wolf on the brink of a second extinction in the wild, more wolves need to be left on the ground and wolves need to be introduced in more areas in the Southwest,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A new recovery plan is needed to identify more places for Mexican gray wolves to be introduced, including potentially the Grand Canyon, southern Rockies, and Mexico.”
Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service has recently signaled that it is ready to make a change for the better, coming up with new programs to help local landowners coexist with wolves.
“This settlement marks an essential step in refocusing the Mexican wolf recovery effort, but the Service will have to get to work on a science-based recovery plan in order to stop the Mexican wolf’s slide toward extinction,” said Kim Crumbo, director of conservation for the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.
“We welcome a new management policy that will bring them closer to recovery,” said Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, who represented the plaintiffs: “It is important that the power over Mexican wolf recovery has been returned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where it belongs under the law.”
The plaintiffs in the case were Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, New Mexico Audubon Council, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, University of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, The Wildlands Network, Sierra Club, Southwest Environmental Center, and Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.