The US Fish and Wildlife Service has completed its revision to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, setting a population target of 320 in the US to warrant removal of the Mexican gray wolf from the Endangered Species List. The plan calls for two populations of Mexican wolves: one of 320 animals in Arizona and New Mexico south of I-40, and one of at least 200 animals in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental mountainss.
"This strategy for the Mexican wolf addresses the threats to the species, including human-caused mortality, extinction risk associated with small population size, and the loss of gene diversity," the service's press release announcing the plan reads.
Human-caused mortality—usually illegal shooting—is the leading cause of death for Mexican wolves. Last year saw 14 wolf mortalities, including two that died during the annual count-and-capture operation. As SFR has previously reported, the wild population faces a genetic bottleneck that, if not soon alleviated by additional releases from the population of captive wolves, could lead to inbreeding on a level that impedes any chance of recovery.
Management efforts over the last three decades have been guided by a document published in 1982, and Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the wild from a captive-bred population in 1998. The service was compelled to complete its revision by the end of this month as part of a settlement agreement signed with the state of Arizona, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity. During the last population count, conducted at end of 2016, there were 113 wolves in the wild in the US, and about 31 in Mexico.
Officials developed the plan in cooperation with representatives from the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. What was finalized this fall, on initial review, appears to closely mirror the draft of the plan that was circulated this summer. As SFR reported then, conservation groups questioned the service's choice in collaborating closely with states and even allowing them to dictate when and where wolves would be added to the wild population, given historic contentions over the reintroduction effort. New Mexico filed an ongoing lawsuit against the service to block additional releases, and withdrew from recovery efforts in 2011, citing concerns with the absence of a set goal for the population.
The game commission did, however, vote to support the plan in August. The presentation from staff focused on the service's affirmation of historic range for the Mexican wolf as south of I-40 sufficient to concentrate recovery efforts there.
The finalized plan also softens language around state direction of the program, reading that decisions on releases will be "made cooperatively" by the federal agency and Arizona or New Mexico's game and fish department.
"Mexican wolves are on the road to recovery in the Southwest thanks to the cooperation, flexibility and hard work of our partners," Amy Lueders, Southwest regional director for the service, said in a press release. "The spirit of collaboration is going to help us meet the recovery goals for this species."
During public meetings, ranchers voiced their frustrations with cohabiting with Mexican wolves and weathering the increased losses to their livestock, and hunting outfitters listed their woes with changes in elk behavior that followed the return of one of the state's larger carnivores.
Staff at the service and the state agencies have said that social tolerance plays a part in these management decisions. So, despite suitable habitat around the Grand Canyon National Park and in the southern Rocky Mountains, wolf reintroductions will be kept to the southern half of Arizona and New Mexico. The target population of 320 is less than half of what was set in a previously drafted recovery plan that was leaked after it was shelved over objections from the states.
"This is just a numbers game and it's not going to recover the species in any meaningful way," Bryan Bird, with Defenders of Wildlife, tells SFR. "It's not going to bring us an ecologically meaningful population."
In places like Yellowstone, returning gray wolves led to a trophic cascade that has benefitted species as far down the food chain as aspen trees and cold-water fish species. Service staff have said that simply avoiding extinction is the primary goal for Mexican wolves, not that kind of ripple effect.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service published over 250 pages of supporting 'scientific' justification, used a sophisticated model to predict extinction probabilities, then tossed the science aside and asked the states how many wolves they would tolerate with no scientific justification whatsoever," said David Parsons, former Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Using the states' arbitrary upper limit as a population cap in the population viability model and forcing additional recovery needs to Mexico, the plan will guarantee that, from now to eternity, no more than a running average of 325 Mexican wolves will ever be allowed to exist in the entire US Southwest. This plan is a disgraceful sham."
The Endangered Species Coalition analyzed 100,000 comments submitted through regulations.gov on the plan, and found 99 percent supported wolf recovery.
Environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice has filed a notice of intent to sue over the "gross inadequacies" of the plan on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Endangered Wolf Center, David Parsons, and the Wolf Conservation Center.
The service says it expects to recover the Mexican wolf in 25 to 35 years and at an estimated cost of $178 million, spending $38 million just in the first five years.