The US Fish and Wildlife Service has invoked a higher power in the name of their legal obligation to bring Mexican wolves back from the edge of extinction. Faced with a New Mexico Game Commission that refuses to cooperate with adding new wolves to the wild, the agency has secured the right from the Department of Interior to override the state.
The feds sought permits to release additional wolves earlier this year, but the New Mexico Game and Fish Department director and the State Game Commission refused to grant permission for the animals to be released into the wild. The service has a policy of trying to collaborate with states, but a right to go above their heads when states don't get on board.
"We've notified New Mexico Department of Game and Fish that we are going to be exempted from our policy to seek their permits so that we can add genetically valuable wolves to the population," says Jeff Humphrey, public affairs specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Our impetus for doing this, for needing to move and release wolves, is to improve the genetics. Wolves are reproducing on their own out in the wild—there's 110, all born in the wild. That population is growing, but they're all related, and we need to correct that problem, and that's why we need to move selected wolves into that population."
New Mexico Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval ruled earlier this year not to permit the release of additional Mexican wolves, as requested by the federal agency to avoid that gene pool problem that could put the ultimate success of the species in jeopardy. At an overcrowded meeting on Sept. 29, in which the State Game Commission voted to uphold Sandoval's decision, wolf supporters (who greatly outnumbered those opposed to wolf recovery) asked for "more wolves, less politics."
"The Endangered Species Act, which requires the protection and recovery of imperiled animals, continues to be a very popular national law," Mary Katherine Ray of the Sierra Club's Rio Grande chapter said in a press release that preceded the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision by a week. "Though a vocal minority at the state level is attempting to obstruct the return of wolves to the Southwest, the Fish and Wildlife Service should proceed to release more wolves to safeguard their still fragile population."
The agency's immediate response to the commission's decision was to all but declare that if the state wouldn't work with them in ensuring Mexican wolf recovery proceeds successfully, they'd simply work around the state, as the US Code of Federal Regulations allows.
The commission and director suggested New Mexico might not be willing to move forward with releasing wolves until the Fish and Wildlife Service has rewritten its policy for managing wolves and issued a new plan, which is not expected until the end of 2017.
But biologists say time is of the essence.
"The longer we delay in introducing new wolves to increase genetic variation in the wild Mexican gray wolf populations, the greater our future challenge will be to ensure that this distinctive wolf survives," Joseph Cook, of the American Society of Mammalogists, said in a press release. "Small populations with limited genetic variability often suffer from the consequences of inbreeding depression. Small populations with limited genetic variability also are generally less resilient to changing environmental conditions and less resistant to the introduction of novel pathogens."
New Mexico's population of wolves includes 110 wolves and eight breeding pairs spread over millions of acres of national forest, wilderness and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. The latest census indicates that fewer than 15 wolves live in New Mexico. Mexican wolves were first reintroduced in 1998 into a small portion of the Apache National Forest.
A January rule updated Mexican wolf management to include the 3.3-million-acre Gila Wilderness, where a long-protected territory supports thousands of deer, elk and other prey animals and could provide habitat to support wolf populations.
The initial goal for recovery was 100 wild wolves—an objective set with no wild wolves and no idea how successful reintroductions would be. An updated rule, released in January, sets a cap at the wolf population of 325. That's well below what the research suggests would be a successful recovered population and is a hard limit on the population—which runs counter to the state's claims that there is no real management policy for Mexican wolves right now.
The Fish and Wildlife Service requested permits from the state earlier this year to release from captivity up to 10 Mexican wolf pups to be cross-fostered into existing wild wolf dens, as well as two adults and any pups they might have. The window has passed for this year's round of pups and the pregnant adult pair that might have been released, but the Fish and Wildlife Service's motion proceeds with an eye toward next year.
"What we're trying to do is just position ourselves so that in the future we're prepared to release wolves to augment the genetics," Humphrey says. "We don't have a batch of wolves in a truck...It's not that scenario."
Meanwhile, there's a pending appeal of the commission's rejection of a request for a renewed permit for Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch to hold Mexican wolves in captivity on their property, which would be adjacent to the Mexican wolf recovery area and greatly ease reintroductions to the wild. The new determination by the service does not apply to that case.
US Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall wrote to US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe on Oct. 8, encouraging the agency to "take actions that are necessary to secure the recovery of the Mexican wolf as required by your responsibilities under the [Endangered Species Act]." They also asked federal officials to continue to openly communicate with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and to pursue cooperation. They had been joined in that call for action by representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity, Wolf Conservation Center, American Society of Mammalogists, Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians. The Fish and Wildlife Service says the hope is that New Mexico will choose to reengage with these efforts in the future, and continue to collaborate on work on other threatened and endangered species in the meantime.
Among the objections to Mexican wolves are their effects on elk and deer herds and livestock. In September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced $284,000 in grant money to be spent by the Arizona Livestock Loss Board and the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Council to compensate for any livestock losses and to pay for preventive measures to deter wolves from attacking livestock. The service's "Pay for Presence" program also compensates ranchers simply for tolerating the presence of wolves in their landscape as part of a coexistence plan that also pays for conflict avoidance measures and compensates for depredation.
"These payments for presence of Mexican wolves recognize the increased costs to livestock producers that come with recovery of Mexican wolves," said Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council Chairman Sisto Hernandez in a November 2014 press release. In 2013, payments for that program totaled $85,500.
The service reports that in 2014, Mexican wolves were responsible for 30 livestock fatalities, four livestock injuries and four dog injuries. To eliminate or reduce conflicts with livestock, the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team advises using an electric fence line with red flagging around livestock-holding pastures, rotating livestock among pastures to avoid areas where wolves are denning, feeding livestock hay during calving season to keep them from dispersing to graze and using range riders to monitor wolves, among other measures.