Lawsuit seeks to have Mexican gray wolves protected as a separate subspecies
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Wildlife conservation advocates are hoping to get some help from federal courts in their quest to prevent Mexican gray wolves from falling over the precipice of extinction.
The Center for Biological Diversity this week sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over the agency’s rejection of a 2009 scientific petition from the center that sought classification of the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered subspecies or population of gray wolves.
Mexican wolves are currently protected as endangered along with all other wolves in the lower 48 states, with the exception of those in the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region. The lawsuit claims that protection as a subspecies will help ensure Mexican gray wolf recovery.
“Mexican wolves are the smallest, most genetically distinct of all gray wolves in North America, uniquely adapted to the dry lands of the Southwest,” said Michael Robinson, the center’s wolf specialist. “We’re filing our second lawsuit in three weeks on their behalf because these very rare animals are on the razor edge of extinction due to federal mismanagement, persecution and neglect. We don’t want to look back in 10 years and wonder if there was anything else we could have done to save them.”
The federal wolf recovery effort dates back to 1982. The original plan recommended maintenance of the captive breeding program and re-establishment of a viable self-sustaining population of at least 100 wolves in the wild within the Mexican wolf’s historic range. Due to the perilous status of the Mexican wolf at the time, and uncertainty if captive-reared wolves could successfully be returned to the wild, the recovery plan stated that delisting may never be possible. The plan, therefore, did not provide a definitive recovery goal (criteria to down-list or de-list the Mexican wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species) for the Mexican wolf, but instead provided an interim objective to focus and stimulate reintroduction and recovery efforts.
The plan was updated in 1997 when the Department of Interior approved a plan to release captive-reared Mexican wolves into a portion of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The final recovery rule established a “nonessential experimental population in Arizona and New Mexico. The non-essential experimental population designation for Mexican wolves allows for greater management flexibility to address conflict situations, such as livestock depredations or nuisance behavior, than if wolves had retained the fully endangered designation.
Both recent lawsuits aim to help Mexican wolves recover. A November law suit is aimed at compelling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reform its ongoing wolf-reintroduction program in accordance with recommendations made by its own scientific panel in 2001.
The wolf recovery effort has been hampered by intense local opposition. While the USFWS has been working collaboratively with wildlife agencies in New Mexico and Arizona, the political and social climate in those states is not favorable for wolf recovery — but that doesn’t excuse federal agencies from having to live up to the mandates of the Endangered Species Act.
More than 10 years ago, the agency promised to consider the reforms. In 2007, it renewed this promise to a court; but it has never followed through. In seeking separate recognition of Mexican wolves through today’s lawsuit, the Center hopes to force the agency to implement the reforms and complete a new recovery plan, in the works since as far back as 1995.
“Fish and Wildlife has consistently failed to take action to ensure the survival and recovery of the Southwest’s one-of-a-kind wolves,” said Robinson. “The government’s stubborn refusal to follow the best science on wolf recovery is pushing the last Mexican gray wolves we have left way too close to the cliff of extinction.”
Nearly 15 years after Mexican wolves were first reintroduced to the Southwest, there are only 58 wolves in the wild; it has been four years since a new wolf was released from captive-breeding facilities. Scientists believe Mexican wolves may be suffering from genetic inbreeding, with reduced litter size and pup survivorship.
Reintroduction of Mexican wolves began in 1998 in response to legal action. The reintroduction has been hampered by rules that require recapture of wolves who set up territories outside the narrowly defined recovery area and that do not allow release of captive wolves into New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, where there’s extensive suitable habitat. The reintroduction has also been hurt by an out-of-date 1980s recovery plan that does not specify a target for recovery.
The Center’s two lawsuits seek to remedy both of these failings by getting the agency to enact reforms and protect Mexican wolves as a specific subpopulation.