The future of the endangered Mexican gray wolf has prompted yet another court battle between environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The recently filed lawsuit seeks a the release of more captive-reared wolves and a much higher population goal.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife hope to overturn the federal government’s latest rule change — which was spurred by a previous lawsuit and court order.
The judge asked the USFWS to review portions of the rule, including genetic management, a cap on the population, whether to reduce removals and killing of nuisance wolves and whether the isolated Mexican gray wolf population should be considered “essential” or “non-essential” to the survival of the species.
Currently, about 196 wolves live in the designated recovery area in the White Mountains of Arizona and neighboring areas in New Mexico. The number of wolves has been increasing in recent years, despite high mortality — mostly from interactions with humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Game and Fish agencies have been placing pups born in captivity in the dens of wild wolves, hoping to increase the genetic diversity of the wild population — all descended from seven wolves captured in the wild decades ago. Genetic studies show some improvement since the start of the cross-fostering program, according to Jim deVos, wolf coordinator for Arizona Game and Fish.
The current plan seeks to manage the wolves until they reach a population of 320 or more in the reintroduction area — with a population of wolves in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Several of the Mexican wolves have traveled into New Mexico and the plan would allow for moving wolves from one population to another to increase genetic diversity.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court maintains that the USFWS ignored the opinions of biologists who said the wolves should be allowed to move into a larger reintroduction area — including areas north of I-40, like the Grand Canyon. Other biologists have concluded the current rule and single reintroduction area would not prevent full recovery.
The lawsuit claims that only the release of captive-reared wolf packs can safeguard the population and effectively increase the genetic diversity of wolves in the wild. However, USFWS maintains the captive-bred wolves are still closely related — and that captive reared packs don’t have as high a survival rate as wild-born wolves and are more likely to end up preying on cattle.
Genetically, the wolves now in the wild are as much alike as siblings from the same family, according to the lawsuit.
But deVos noted that genetic management has produced a small increase in diversity, based on the most recent studies.
“Are we out of the woods on genetics?” said deVos. “No, but there are some things to consider when looking at genetics with small founding populations. Looking at the Florida panther gives a case study of what happens when genetic diversity reaches a critical level. Florida panthers were showing a variety of physical problems such as reduced sperm motility, crooked tails etc. The population was in essence winking out and required introduction of a Texas panther to aid in increasing genetic diversity. When looking at the MW we see none of the factors that one would expect in a population with extreme genetic depression. Litter sizes are large and remain so. We see no physical anomalies in the wild population. The population is steadily growing.”
The environmentalists have embraced a recommendation by scientists suggesting the isolated population of Southwestern gray wolves won’t be stable without three connected populations totaling some 750 wolves.
Other biologists consulted by the USFWS have supported the lower number, without adding new populations. DeVos noted that adding populations and an expansion of the reintroduction area was not one of the issues the judge ordered reintroduction managers to review.
“The government’s new management program threatens failure for the entire Mexican gray wolf recovery effort,” said Timothy Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s biodiversity defense program. “Improving genetic diversity and establishing additional populations are critically important for the lobos’ survival. Unfortunately, this new rule falls far short of what is needed to restore the Mexican gray wolf.”
“We are deeply concerned that FWS continues to disregard the recommendations and concerns of top scientists and the harmful impacts this inaction is having on recovery,” said Craig Miller, senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Mexican wolves, ranchers and the public would all benefit from the increased coordination that comes with ‘essential’ status and by allowing wolves back into suitable habitats where there are few opportunities for conflict. Instead, the new rule prevents necessary expansion and confines a single population to an area with much unsuitable habitat and a high likelihood of conflict.”
“Increasing genetic diversity is key to the recovery of the small Mexican gray wolf population, but the government is stalling,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Underlying the federal absence of genetic standards is a determination to keep killing wolves and avoid effective wolf releases, all on behalf of the public lands livestock industry.”
DeVos noted that there are currently 40 wolves in Mexico, with three litters produced two seasons ago and two last season.
“In addition, the Mexican government has recently agreed to evaluating and trying additional releases and a more southern state in Mexico. By almost every metric one can look at, recovery is occurring and genetics being carefully managed,” said deVos.
He noted that Game and Fish and USFWS are relying on scientific analysis based on the most recent data. The federal biologists who supported the most recent rule simply disagreed in some areas with the studies and estimates cited in the environmentalists’ lawsuit.
Both Game and Fish and USFWS have documented a 49% increase in wolf numbers since 2018, despite the effects of the drought on the prey base. Federal biologists have credited the cross-fostering program, a reduction in wolf poaching and the increasing stability of the existing wolf packs for the increase.
The wolves continue to prey on cattle in the reintroduction area, killing about 140 head of livestock annually. Ranchers can get reimbursement for lost livestock — but they say the program doesn’t cover all their costs or account for all the cattle killed by the wolves.
Environmental groups have waged a tenacious battle in court ever since the USFWS revised its plan to save the wolves in 2015. A federal judge in 2018 upheld a challenge to the rule. The court directed the USFWS to revise its rule in four areas by July of 2022.
The latest lawsuit challenges that management rule revision.
Another lawsuit in the 9th District Court of Appeals has challenged the entire plan — saying it’s not based on the best science, but on a negotiated settlement.
More wolves! Less cattle and elk.
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