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Conditional Optimism: Conservationists Score Victory for the Mexican Wolf

A shaggy gray, white and brown wolf steps carefully through a brushy field. The wolf occupies the center of the frame.
Mexican wolf. Photo: Jim Clark, USFWS

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps rejected provisions in a 2015 federal management rule that unlawfully imposed roadblocks to the recovery of the endangered Mexican wolf (Lobo). The contested rule arbitrarily ignores the bulk of nearly two decades of credible scientific information, including recommendations from scientists on previous U.S. Fish and Wildlife recovery teams.

The judge particularly faulted government officials for disregarding the advice of expert scientists who warned that the new management rule would hinder the Mexican wolf’s recovery by limiting the lobos’ population numbers, loosening the rules against killing the animals in the wild, and keeping them from needed recovery habitat, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and southern Rockies in New Mexico and Colorado.

With only 114 Mexican wolves left roaming the wild, Judge Zipps ordered government officials to do more to protect and recover this critically endangered carnivore. She ruled that the 2015 measures violated the USFWS’s duty under the Endangered Species Act to recover the Mexican wolf to a significant portion of their historic range. She ordered the agency to revise the rule and report back in response to her ruling in 30 days with a proposed deadline for that revision.

History of Lobo Recovery Efforts

By the early 1970s, the Mexican wolf was extirpated in the United States, and by the 1980s it was also considered extirpated in Mexico. In 1982, a recovery plan was developed specifically for the Mexican wolf, with the primary objective ‘‘to conserve and ensure the survival of [the Mexican wolf] by maintaining a captive breeding program and reestablishing a viable, self-sustaining population of… Mexican wolves in [the wild].” Until November 2017, the USFWS did not publish a new finalized recovery plan.

A wolf, whose neck extends downward from the upper left corner of the frame, places her mouth close to one of her pups' mouths to feed it.
“Joy”, a Grey Wolf or Lobo Mexicano, feeds one of her five one-month-old cubs at Mexico City’s zoo Monday June 10, 2002. For the first time in 28 years this species in danger of extinction, Canis Lupus Baileyi, has reproduced five cubs in captivity. Photo: Jose Luis Magana, AP.

In 1998, the USFWS constrained the recovery area to the Gila and Apache national forests south of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico—defined as the Mexican wolf experimental population area. Since then, the USFWS has been releasing captive-bred wolves into the area. Today, 114 wolves exist in this wild in the U.S., though the agency kills or captures wolves who wander beyond the boundaries of the experimental population area—boundaries incomprehensible to the animal—resulting in pack and family disruption as well as loss of genetically essential individuals.

After the original recovery plan was introduced in 1982, conservationists have consistently recommended the USFWS consider at least three populations of wolves in areas both south and north of I-40, totaling at least 750 individuals. In 2014, conservationists filed suit against the USFWS for failure to prepare an adequate recovery plan.

The final Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan fails to meet essential standards and instead sets the Mexican wolf on a path to extinction.

In response to the 2014 suit, the agency proposed a new revision to the regulations for the experimental population in 2015. The new management rule—rejected this week by Judge Zipps—ignored recommendations from scientists and conservationists, capping the wolf population at 325 individuals and barring wolf dispersal north of I-40, where suitable habitat for Mexican wolves exists.

In 2017, the agency published the final Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which included the unscientific provisions from the 2015 management rule. As feared, the plan proved largely influenced by political consideration and ignored the best available science essential for recovery of the Mexican wolf.

With total numbers of Mexican wolves hovering around only 100 animals today, the need for a revised recovery plan is more than apparent. The 2017 plan fails to meet essential standards and instead sets the Mexican wolf on a path to extinction. Key elements of an effective new plan require a significantly expanded recovery area, as well as the biological imperative for a minimum population of at least 750 individual wolves. Management leading to recovery also demands long overdue releases from captive facilities of genetically critical individual wolves.

The Fight Continues

To be sure, the judge’s ruling is a win for the Mexican wolf. We are hopeful the USFWS will use this opportunity to fulfill their mission to “guide the conservation, development, and management of the Nation’s fish and wildlife resources,” ensuring the Mexican wolf has a chance to recover from such low population levels.

Standing behind a fall tree trunk, a gray wolf looks toward the camera.
Mexican wolf. Photo: Eric Kilby

However, there is still work to be done. The judge’s ruling makes it clear the USFWS has more to do to protect the Mexican wolf, and we will continue to fight for the lobo’s recovery.

In January, conservationists filed two separate lawsuits against the USFWS in response to their 2017 Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, alleging their recovery plan violates the Endangered Species Act. The first, represented by EarthJustice, produced this week’s ruling to reject the 2015 management ruling . The second lawsuit consists of conservationists represented by Western Environmental Center and includes Wildlands Network.

We are awaiting that decision with conditional optimism.

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