Mexican wolf recovery stalled out this morning when an appeal from the US Fish and Wildlife Service failed to convince the New Mexico Game Commission to permit releases of additional captive-bred wolves to add to roughly 100 of the animals spread over millions of acres of wilderness in Arizona and New Mexico. The state's decision may lead the federal agencies to call upon the superseding authority of the US Secretary of the Interior.
"Recovery of the Mexican wolf remains our goal and our statutory responsibility," a statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service following the decision reads. "New Mexico Department of Game and Fish's denial of state permits cannot stand as a significant impediment to the recovery of the Mexican wolf…Strategic releases of genetically desirable wolves are urgently needed and we must move forward to insure the genetic robustness of the population."
The state Game Commission voted unanimously to uphold Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval's decision to refuse to allow the US Fish and Wildlife Service to release additional wolves, including two adults with their associated pups and up to 10 pups to be "cross fostered," a process in which captive-born wolf pups are placed with wild parents to be brought up in the wilderness and have a greater chance of success there.
"The commission was just supporting a bad decision made by their director. After all, they appointed her, so they have to show some confidence in her," says Dave Parsons, who oversaw the USFWS recovery program when the first Mexican wolves were reintroduced into the wild (he has since left the agency). New Mexico wasn't a fan of the reintroduction then, either, but public pressure and a court order prevailed.
Though its August meeting, in which the commission heard additional information from the Fish and Wildlife Service on the proposed releases, was filled to overflowing at a venue with 300 seats, the commission opted to move to a ballroom half that size for the September meeting in which they'd issue a decision on the appeal.
The meeting agenda did not call for public comment, yet the 143-person capacity ballroom at Embassy Suites in Albuquerque was filled to capacity, and a Game and Fish Department employee guarding the door refused to permit people, including two journalists, to enter unless someone exited, and also refused to open the doors to allow those waiting in the hallway to listen to proceedings. The shouting would likely reach levels that could be heard outside the closed doors, he told nearly a dozen people waiting for word on the issue.
True enough, shortly after the vote, the doors erupted with the first angry meeting attendee, who stormed out declaring the whole commission a farce and encouraging others not to give any validity to a commission obviously in bed with ranchers.
The word, when it did come out, was that the commission assessed Sandoval's choice based on whether she had reached a reasonable or rational conclusion, and determined that she had. More than half of the meeting attendees vacated the room at that determination, some booing, some howling, many carrying signs that read "More wolves, less politics," and one pair in a wolf costume and Little Red Riding Hood cape.
"They're not interested in science," Irini Georgas, a 10-year New Mexico resident, told SFR. "The rights of the ranchers are protected, but what about the rights of the animals?"
Most of the Mexican wolves in the wild are basically as genetically similar as siblings, according to the USFWS, and that shallow gene pool may make it tough for them to thrive. The species had been eradicated from the American Southwest by the middle of the 20th century and was listed as endangered in 1977; formal reintroduction efforts begun in 1998 with seven wolves. After two decades, the wild population hovers just over 100, the original objective set when biologists weren't even certain the handful of wolves left in captivity could be successfully re-established in the wild.
During the entire Obama administration, only four wolves have been released, said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, and they've all been shot, captured for leaving the recovery area or killed under circumstances yet to be publicly released. He characterizes the situation with Mexican wolves now as a "genetic emergency."
"This will only get worse," Robinson says. "More and more of the genetic diversity will be lost unless more wolves are released into the wild."
No one, least of all the USFWS, should be surprised by this choice by the State Game Commission, he says, New Mexico having withdrawn its support for the Mexican wolf program in 2011; that same year, the state permitted leg trapping for coyotes in the wolf recovery area, meaning wolves would likely be snared in traps set for coyotes. Parsons says he overheard two game commissioners in the men's room before the meeting muttering about "crazy wolf people."
"How could the Fish and Wildlife Service conceivably have thought Susana Martinez's administration was going to change its spots?" Robinson asks. "The US Fish and Wildlife Service needs to do its job and release wolves into the Gila."
The federal regulations outlining endangered species recovery suggest that the Fish and Wildlife Service seek cooperation from the states involved, but state decisions don't overrule their obligation to protect the species from extinction. Without a greater population and a deeper gene pool, extinction of Mexican wolves "remains a serious possibility," Parsons says.
Whether the USFWS or the Secretary of the Interior will share that view and make an effort to circumvent the Game Commission's ruling remains to be seen.
"It's our policy—in written policy in the code of federal regulations—that we work with the states through their permitting process, except if it would deter us from our statutory responsibility," says Jeff Humphrey, public affairs specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the "statutory responsibility" being to bring species back from the edge of extinction. "That is under consideration by our leadership right now."