Wolves just can’t catch seem to a break in the West

Was public cut out of  Arizona wolf planning process?

Mexican gray wolf. Photo courtesy USFWS.
Mexican gray wolf. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Staff Report

FRISCO — The slowly recovering population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest may face even more pressure in coming years, as state officials in Arizona seek to codify a new wolf management plan that could restrict recovery efforts.

According to wildlife conservation advocates, the new proposal is mainly driven by groups that have long been hostile to wolves, including ranchers and hunters. The so-called cooperating agencies alternative is a collection of previously discarded policies that failed to promote wolf recovery, said a Sierra Club spokesperson.

“If this alternative is enacted, it will likely mean a second extinction in the wild for Mexican wolves,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “The document limits the number of animals arbitrarily, restricts the recovery area, eliminates opportunities for connected multiple populations, and promotes more frequent removal or killing of wolves. This is not a proposal to recover a highly endangered species. It is a proposal to exterminate them.”

Alternately, the proposed management alternative is seen as a way to defuse the long-running state-federal standoff over wolves. A management scheme with a more local flavor may help ranchers develop a certain comfort level with sustaining wolves at a certain level if they don’t feel like they’re going to be over-run.

State and local interests want a low-level background population, where wolves wandering close to grazing areas can simply be eliminated — and this is part of a trend across the Rocky Mountain West. From Montana to Mexico, the establishment wants to see just pockets of wolves, a few hundred per state.

Wildlife advocates have vision of wolves ranging much more widespread across the landscape. For very good reasons, the Endangered Species Act calls for recovery across a significant portion of a species’ historic range. Smaller, isolated populations are much more susceptible to catastrophic events, including disease and maybe even wildfires.

Finding balance isn’t easy when positions are so polarized to start with, suggesting the need for a new endangered species management paradigm.

Some species — like wolves — may need sustained monitoring and institutionalized adaptive management measures to help ensure at least stable populations that are accepted socially and politically. Over time, conservation advocates could build support for larger populations, and other factors may come into play: Changes in demographics and land use, as well as climate change, could factor into the conservation equation.

Instead of simply declaring recovery, federal and state wildlife biologists must gear up to keep a close eye on wolves in the foreseeable future, ready to change tactics in the case of a population crash.

Meanwhile, wildlife groups said the plan is nothing more than an effort to cut populations to a minimum.

“This chilling proposal would bring the Mexican wolf even closer to the brink of extinction while advancing the states-rights goal of wresting control of endangered wildlife and bringing both the feds and wild animals to heel,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Arizona Game and Fish has advocated the killing of Mexican wolves for a long time, and now it’s seeking to increase and institutionalize the slaughter, and make the policy of killing wolves immune to any last-ditch efforts to save them in the event of a declining population.”

The proposal, now sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is intended to guide management of this endangered wolf population, which now stands at about 83 in the two states.

The Center for Biological Diversity sent out the following information in a release:

According to Robinson, the proposal was endorsed by the state’s wildlife commission in a rushed and secretive process that all but precluded meaningful public involvement. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission called a last-minute telephonic meeting to endorse this alternative, despite having earlier indicated publicly that this issue would not be addressed until its June meeting.

In developing the proposal, the state agency included nearly all of the groups that have historically objected to wolf recovery: Livestock interests, trappers, and some counties and hunting groups — but no groups that have supported wolf recovery. The document was not made available for review until right before Tuesday’s telephone meeting, and members of the public who wished to comment were required to be present at the Game and Fish office in north Phoenix, rather than being able to participate from satellite offices throughout the state as is often the case.

“Why is Arizona Game and Fish leaving out large segments of the public and rushing through policies to hinder the recovery of a highly endangered species?” said Bahr. “The agency and commission should be embarrassed by both its conduct and the fact that it has endorsed an alternative that is contrary to federal law, contrary to the best science, and clearly intended to limit wolf recovery.”

The proposed “extinction” alternative is indefensible in many ways.

  1. The document includes uncited research from the northern Rockies that states Arizona and New Mexico can only accommodate 200-300 wolves (page 4). This is contrary to the best available science from members of the recovery team.
  2. It proposes to cap the population of wolves at 300 across both Arizona and New Mexico (page 8), but states that 125 animals will be its fallback number and that it will be willing to try to manage for 200 to 300 wolves only if every wolf beyond the 300 threshold is trapped or killed expeditiously. These numbers are far lower than the 750 minimum threshold scientists on the recovery team have proposed based on the best available science.
  3. The alternative includes a broad provision to allow the states to remove or kill wolves to maintain this arbitrary cap, or because they impact game species, or any other reason, including “to avoid conflict with human activities” (page 25).
  4. It allows landowners and livestock permittees to kill wolves for a long list of reasons, including if a wolf “harassed” a pet (page 22).
  5. It revives SOP 13.0, a discarded policy that led to the deaths and removals of entire packs of wolves, regardless of the wolves’ genetic value or necessity to dependent pups, until the wild population declined to only 42 wolves in 2009  (page 9).
  6. It seeks to limit federal actions to recover Mexican wolves to law enforcement only in areas “claimed” by state authority. The federal government can check on the states’ progress every three years (page 16).

The game department alternative would also grant the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” agency, which kills predators for ranchers, sweeping authority to decide which wolves to kill. And it even purports to constrain future U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision-making on what standards to use in removing the Mexican wolf from the endangered species list.

“This alternative would relegate the Fish and Wildlife Service, which by law must recover endangered species, to two roles: reporting once every three years on the status of the wolf population, and disposing of the carcasses of wolves on an ongoing basis,” said Robinson.


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