The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must update its plan to protect the Mexican gray wolf within six months, including specific measures to reduce poaching, U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps ruled recently.

Zipps’ decision represents a partial victory for a coalition of environmental groups who made a number of other claims as well. The judge dismissed some of those claims, but upheld an assertion that the USFWS doesn’t have a plan to reduce deliberate killing of the wolves by humans.

Some 250 of the genetically distinct wolf species now live in the wild in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Their numbers have increased about 50% in the past five years thanks to an expensive, decades-long effort. However, since 1998, 105 wolves have been documented victims of illegal poaching — and probably many more.

Nonetheless, wolf populations have doubled in the past five years. In the same period, the number of livestock killed by wolves has increased significantly, according to ongoing studies.

The 2018 lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity claimed the wolf recovery plan violated the Endangered Species Act in several areas, including a lack of a plan to reduce poaching. Deliberate killings of wolves have resulted in some heavily publicized incidents in the White Mountains in the past few years. The U.S. Forest Service has offered rewards for several recent wolf deaths. In addition, a man was recently convicted of trapping a wolf, then beating it to death with a shovel.

“More than 70% of documented Mexican wolf mortalities are human-caused,” said Elizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice attorney. “We’re glad that the court has recognized that for the Mexican wolf to survive, the Fish and Wildlife Service must put in place a robust plan that includes concrete actions to address the threat of illegal killing.”

The lawsuit maintained that the USFWS actually helps poachers by not keeping secret the locations of radio collared wolves. In some cases, poachers have located wolves by tracking the GPS signals on their collars.

The USFWS declined immediate comment on the court ruling.

“Ensuring that wolves and people can coexist is an essential part of long-term success for Mexican gray wolf recovery,” said Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “This court ruling recognizes the urgent need from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a recovery plan that addresses a significant threat to the Mexican gray wolf: poaching by people.”

“The path to recovery for the Mexican wolf has been hampered by widespread poaching for far too long,” said Michael Robinson at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now that the Fish and Wildlife Service has to take this issue seriously, we hope these wolves will stand a better chance of survival.”

The ruling represents the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between environmentalists and ranchers, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Fish and Game often caught somewhere in the embattled middle.

Ranchers have fought the reintroduction of the wolves every step of the way, saying the mounting toll on their operations endangers the survival of public lands ranching in the Southwest. Federal contract hunters track and kill or recapture wolves suspected of preying on livestock or threatening humans. Those losses to government hunters sometimes exceed the toll of illegal poaching. Moreover, the federal government pays ranchers for cattle and sheep lost to wolves. However, ranchers say the payments don’t cover the full cost of their losses.

Environmentalists argue wolves play a key ecological role in controlling deer and elk populations, which benefits ecosystems — especially battered riparian areas. Moreover, they maintain that cattle on public lands do considerable ecological damage and shouldn’t take priority over reintroducing endangered species like the wolf.

Environmental groups have argued in court that the federal government should impose new restrictions on ranchers who operate in the recovery habitat of the wolves, including restrictions on when the cattle have their calves and whether those calves remain on open range when they’re young and vulnerable to wolves. Courts have generally rejected those pleas, saying the USFWS has the authority under law to make those determinations.

Environmental groups have also argued to expand the recovery zone, to allow wolves in Arizona and New Mexico to connect to small wolf populations in Mexico.

In the latest ruling, Judge Zipps rejected most of the environmentalists’ allegations that the USFWS was violating the Endangered Species Act. The judge repeatedly held that the law gives the government wide latitude in determining the facts and making judgments.

So the judge essentially sidestepped efforts to upend the plan to ensure sufficient genetic diversity in the reintroduced wolves, settle on a recovery goal of 320 wolves in the wild and establish critical habitat.

Instead, the judge issued a relatively narrow decision that sent the recovery plan back to the USFWS to provide more detail and specifics when it comes to reducing the toll of poaching to where it won’t pose a threat to the recovery of the wolves. The revisions must include “site specific” actions within six months to allow for public comment. The final plan revisions will come no more than six months after that.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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(1) comment

Mike White

How does this one apparently activist judge have the right to tell everyone else what to do? That is the job of the Legislature.

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