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Wildlands Network and Other Conservationists Intend to File Lawsuit to Protect Mexican Wolves

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.

This is post 6 of 7 in "Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan."

Throughout this series, we will follow the progression of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which ignores the best available science about the population sizes and habitat areas essential to recovery. You will learn more about changes to the USFWS plan, our suggested improvements to the plan, and how you can help. All posts in this series…

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

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released their final Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan last November, Wildlands Network reviewed the plan thoroughly and quickly determined it wasn’t enough to ensure the recovery of the Mexican wolf. Along with three other conservation groups, we gave the USFWS notice last year that we intended to file a lawsuit challenging the plan’s unscientific recommendations that would ultimately lead to the Mexican wolf’s demise. The first piece of that lawsuit will be filed next week.

Recovery Plan Ignores Best Available Science

Our attorneys at the Western Environmental Law Center—who are representing Wildlands Network, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watershed Project, and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance—emphasized in their notice that the final recovery plan conflicts with the best available science that informs the USFWS’s own recovery guidelines, including those regarding downlisting, delisting, and recovery of an endangered or threatened species.

These fatal shortcomings include failing to include site-specific management actions necessary to conserve Mexican wolves, as well as failing to include objective, measurable criteria that, when met, would remove North America’s most endangered wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A brown, black and white wolf runs across the frame, toward the left of the frame. The wolf's front paws are off the ground and his tongue is out. He's running on dry scrubby ground.
A Mexican wolf runs across a field. Photo: Jim Clark, USFWS

In just one example, independent researchers—as well as the USFWS draft recovery plan and 2010 Mexican wolf conservation assessment—all agreed that conserving Mexican wolves requires the establishment of at least three subpopulations of Mexican wolves connected to one another, with each population simultaneously having approximately 250 animals for two generations (a minimum of eight years).

Using sophisticated landscape analysis, researchers determined these three Mexican wolf populations could include: (1) the current Blue Range Recovery Area; (2) a second population in the Grand Canyon ecoregion (north of Interstate 40 in Arizona); and (3) a third population in north-central New Mexico and southern Colorado’s San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Researchers consider these recovery zones essential for long-term Mexican wolf survival.

These draconian constraints would result in Mexican wolves losing the Endangered Species Act protections at half the number in the wild that scientists say are needed for recovery in the U.S.

However, the USFWS’s final recovery plan ignores two of the three recovery zones. These U.S. recovery areas (the Grand Canyon ecoregion and northern New Mexico/southern Colorado) deemed essential for Mexican wolf recovery were discarded for “geopolitical reasons” and not the best available science.

In our notice, we also emphasized that the final so-called recovery plan relied on a flawed scientific report and population viability model, which was developed to produce politically—not scientifically—derived outcomes leading to two populations comprising only half the total necessary for recovery. These draconian constraints would result in Mexican wolves losing the Endangered Species Act protections at half the number in the wild that scientists say are needed for recovery in the U.S.—bolstered by only 170 animals in Mexico. At that time, the states would assume “management” of the Lobo.

What’s the Problem with State Management?

New Mexico’s participation in recovery was minimal until Governor Bill Richardson’s Game Commission voted to become more active in field activities in 2004. But after Governor Susana Martinez took office in 2011, the commission voted to end state participation in the recovery program and then began to actively thwart lobo recovery in the state through legal and administrative actions. From denying a permit to the Turner Ranch for serving as a holding facility pending wolf releases to denying the USFWS permits to release wolves in the state at all, to suing for the removal of pups, New Mexico’s actions do not suggest a current amicable partnership in wolf recovery.

In 2010, when the world’s wild Lobo population hovered around only 50 wolves, the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) asked Congress to remove all federal protections for this critically endangered mammal. AZGFD’s leadership of the wolf reintroduction program from 2003 through 2009 resulted in the wild population dropping from 55 to 42. Only when the USFWS resumed control of the program in 2009 did the wolf population rise from 50 to 113 by 2017.

A shaggy black, white and brown wolf looks at the photographer.
A Mexican wolf looks curiously at the photographer. Photo: Eric Kilby

In February 2017, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake introduced the so-called “Mexican Wolf Recovery Act—Senate Bill S.368,” which was immediately labeled a “hostile takeover” of the Lobo recovery planning effort. Conservationists correctly pointed out that the bill is “politics instead of science” that would virtually guarantee extinction in the wild.

The bill would further erode federal authority to recover the Lobo, taking wolves off the protected list, exempting judicial review of the recovery process, and undermining the checks and balances built into our democratic system of government. Arizona Game and Fish Commissioners publicly supported Flake’s bill and even backed an earlier bill to remove ESA protections and cap the population at 100 wolves.

Senator Flake reintroduced a similar bill in early January 2018 that calls for the USFWS to determine if a population of fewer than 100 wolves has been established along the Arizona-New Mexico border. If so, the Mexican wolf would be considered recovered and removed from the endangered list at levels significantly below any credible recovery criteria.

Until a better system of non-game species management is established at the state level, there is no assurance that states would pursue policies or practices designed to ensure recovery of the Mexican wolf in the wild. For now, putting management back in the hands of the states is sure to increase conflict on the ground and hinder decades of work to once again establish wild wolves in the Southwest.

So, We’ll See Them in Court….

The USFWS contends recovery planning to be an essential tool for conservation and that recovery plans are important because they are road maps to recovery. While we don’t relish the thought of taking the federal government to court, we do intend to prove that the Final Recovery Plan was produced by a political—not a scientifically credible—process and must be amended if the Mexican wolf is to have any shot at recovery in the wild.

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