When the New Mexico Game Commission meets in Santa Fe on Thursday, the seven men on the commission are expected to consider a vague-sounding proposal to modify the state's rules on "live wildlife permitting."
While the agenda briefing bears no mention of any specific species, the move is clearly aimed at the decades' long efforts to recover the Mexican gray wolf.
Under the proposed amendment to the state Department of Game and Fish's rules, the Game Commission would need to approve the possession or use of "any predatory animals" in the state that are being recovered, reintroduced, conditioned, established or reestablished before the department's director could issue a permit.
The proposed amendment isn't necessarily an unexpected move. During the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, New Mexico has backtracked on its previous support of the reintroduction efforts for the endangered animal. In 2011, the commission voted to end the state's participation in the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program.
Currently, New Mexico hosts two of the three pre-release facilities for the Mexican gray wolf—the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro and the Ladder Ranch Wolf Management Facility south of Truth or Consequences. At both these facilities, captive-bred wolves are allowed to live in relatively large areas, develop pack and breeding behavior and avoid human contact before being released into the wild.
"It's clearly an unconstitutional power play," says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's hard to see what would happen if New Mexico says, 'No, we're not giving you a permit to hold wolves.' What's New Mexico going to do? Send the State Police to Sevilleta?"
A US Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman declined to answer a question about whether such a policy from the Game Commission would affect its facilities, noting only that the federal agency is not permitted to "influence legislation."
It's also unclear how the proposed amendment might affect captive wolf populations at the Albuquerque BioPark, which has Mexican gray wolves on display for the public and has also been involved with the reintroduction effort and breeding program since the 1990s.
Extirpated from the United States in the mid-20th century, Mexican gray wolves in the wild currently number fewer than 100. Since 1998, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, tribes, federal agencies and New Mexico and Arizona have worked together—in fits and starts, as politics have allowed—to reintroduce the species to the wild. Currently, the recovery area is limited to the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to complete a new recovery plan for the wolves, it did release draft changes to its program in July.
That document reflects both positive and negative changes, says Eva Sargent, director of the Southwest Program at the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. One of its biggest failings, she says, is not allowing wolves to live north of Interstate 40. Without being able to populate habitat within Northern New Mexico, southern Colorado and in the Grand Canyon, scientists are doubtful the species can really recover. "The Service is quitting before the job is done," she says.
And while federal law will trump any state or local ordinances trying to tinker with the recovery effort, Sargent says that the Game Commission's pending move is still a big deal.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service always defers to the states," she says, "and this will just put up another roadblock." Two years ago, she says, the Arizona Game Commission gave itself new control over the release of wolves within that state. "It caused the Fish and Wildlife Service to have to go to the Game Commission and beg," she says. "That's not how it's supposed to be." The agency should always cooperate with states and stakeholders, she says. But authority over the program remains with the federal government.
Originally scheduled for last Thursday, the Game Commission meeting is now scheduled for Thursday, August 28 at 9 am in the New Mexico State Capitol Building, Room 321.
Although he could not comment on the agenda item, Game and Fish's spokesman Lance Cherry says that the meeting was rescheduled after they noticed a legal notice hadn't run in the newspaper. "We had plenty of other notices, but thought it was best to take care of that and make sure we don't have an Open Meeting Act violation," he says. "We're just dotting our i's, crossing our t's and making sure we do things right."
He adds that while the commission isn't likely to vote on the proposed amendment at its August meeting—the item will be presented, the department will make its recommendations and the public can comment—the commission can vote, if it chooses.
"It just depends on circumstances, but if there's something that's an issue, the commission will always act responsibly," he says, "and take action to make sure things are done correctly."
To read about the days when New Mexico supported the recovery program:
To see photos and videos of captive, wild, and released wolves: