The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week agreed to prepare a recovery plan for Mexican gray wolves by 2017. The court settlement will compel the federal agency to finally meet its legal obligation to ensure that the wolves can establish a healthy, sustainable population. The settlement may speed up the slow-going conservation and recovery effort.
The settlement came in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of wolf-conservation groups, environmental organizations and a retired federal wolf biologist. Less than 100 Mexican gray wolves exist in the wild, making it one of the most endangered mammals in North America. The settlement follows a September 2015 ruling by a federal judge in Tucson that rejected the government’s effort to dismiss the case.
The recovery effort has long been mired in politics, with conservative Republican lawmakers setting roadblocks at every turn, pressuring the USFWS from the state level and trying to make end runs around the Endangered Species Act in Congress.
“The settlement announced today provides hope that the lobo can be a living, breathing part of the southwestern landscape instead of just a long-lost frontier legend,” said Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney. “But to realize that hope, federal officials must take up the challenge of developing a legitimate, science-based recovery plan for the Mexican wolf rather than yielding to political pressure,” said Preso.
“After four decades of delay, a scientific roadmap for recovery of the Mexican gray wolf will finally be reality,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The recovery plan should trigger new releases of captive-bred wolves into the wild and establish new Mexican wolf populations in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountain ecosystems,” Robinson said.
The formal recovery plan will replace a temporary version first developed in 1982. That document, according to conservation advocates, didn’t meet the legal standard of the Endangered Species Act, and didn’t include the necessary science-based guidance to move the Mexican gray wolf toward recovery.
Without a recovery plan in place, the Service’s Mexican gray wolf conservation efforts have been hobbled by insufficient releases of captive wolves into the wild population, excessive removals of wolves from the wild, and arbitrary geographic restrictions on wolf occupancy of promising recovery habitat, wolf advocates said.
Mexican gray wolves were introduced to the wild in 1998, resulting in a scattered population of less than 100 wolves in the Blue Range area of Arizona and New Mexico — all of them descendants of just seven wild founders of a captive-breeding program.
They are are threatened by illegal killings, legal removals due to conflicts with livestock, and a lack of genetic diversity. Within the past year alone, escalating mortalities and illegal killing, along with reduced pup survival, reduced the wild population from 110 to 97 individuals.
Habitat capable of supporting the two additional populations exists in the Grand Canyon ecoregion and in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The Mexican gray wolf recovery team drafted a plan in 2012 that called for establishing three interconnected Mexican gray wolf populations totaling at least 750 animals in these areas, but the plan has never been finalized.
In 2014, the USFWS announced that it wanted to expand the recovery area, making room for about 300 wolves.
The settlement today requires the Service to complete a valid recovery plan by November 2017 and requires peer review of the recovery plan to ensure its scientific integrity. The settlement has been presented to the federal judge overseeing the case, who must approve it before the settlement becomes binding on the parties.