A Federal judge in Arizona has ruled wildlife managers from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) failed do enough to protect a subspecies of wolf native to the American Southwest.
Led by the Center for Biological Diversity, a number of environmental groups sued USFS and FWS in 2015 saying the agencies had adopted policies at odds with the requirements of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) to protect and help the endangered Mexican gray wolf to recover.
U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps agreed with their claim and issued a summary judgment on April 2 in favor of the groups’ position which could result in the release of increasing numbers captive-bred Mexican gray wolves into the wild, and an expanded range for them to roam in. In her 44-page ruling, Zipps says the best available science consistently shows successful recovery requires consideration of long-term impacts of wolf removal policies, particularly with regards to the subspecies’ genetic health.
Ranchers Push Back
Mexican gray wolves were nearly extinct by the 1980s. At that time, only a few remained in northern Mexico. Previously persecuted and nearly extirpated by both the federal government and state governments and ranchers and hunters, in 1976 the subspecies was listed as Endangered under the ESA and in 1982 the first wolf recovery plan was developed.
Mexico and the United States committed to a recovery plan in the hopes of bringing their number back to around 250 to 300 wolves. To aid in their recovery, the U.S. government raised wolves in captivity, releasing them periodically over time into the wild into a 150,000-acre area in the Blue Range, on the border of Arizona and New Mexico.
The recovery plan faced push back from local residents and livestock owners within and outside the designated recovery areas who said the wolves were a threat to their livelihoods, and from hunters who argued expanded wolf numbers would decimate game populations.
Despite legal protection, a number of wolves were killed illegally, allegedly by ranchers and hunters. In addition, FWS allowed the lawful removal of wolves considered nuisances or non-essential under the plan.
Today there are about 100 wolves in the Southwest United States according to the latest counts. Despite the fact present wolf numbers are just one-third of the target population, in an effort to limit public backlash to wolf recovery efforts, in 2015 FWS altered the recovery plan to allow expanded legal killing of Mexican gray wolves.
The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups reacted by filing suit, claiming the federal agencies were violating the ESA by bowing to public pressure rather than following the advice of its scientific experts.
“As FWS observed in 1982, any recovery effort must deal with the residue of a long history of anti-wolf sentiment by the public,” Zipps wrote in her ruling. “However, any effort to make the recovery effort more effective must be accomplished without undermining the scientific integrity of the agency’s findings and without subverting the statutory mandate to further recovery. The agency failed to do so here.
“Moreover, this case is unique in that the same scientists that are cited by the agency publicly communicated their concern that the agency misapplied and misinterpreted findings in such a manner that the recovery of the species is compromised,” said Zipps in her ruling.
Part of the problem is expanded legal killing wolves, according to Zipps, fails to take into account the importance of genetic diversity within the population, which is so low dangers of inbreeding and its attendant woes are present.
“The best available science consistently shows that recovery requires consideration of long-term impacts, particularly the subspecies’ genetic health,” Zipps wrote.
FWS must now develop a new wolf recovery plan satisfying the concerns Zipps raised.
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.