Pictured: Wolf, F1154, being relocated into the Gila National Forest.
Photo courtesy of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team
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Proposed bill could determine the fate of Mexican wolf recovery

02/14/18

Tara Alatorre
Staff

PINETOP — Biologists have recently finished conducting their annual wolf population survey in an aerial operation that captures, collars and surveys the Mexican gray wolf population near Alpine, Ariz., and surrounding areas. The results of this year’s population survey, which will be released later this February, could determine the fate and recovery of the rarest wolf species in North America.

The survey flights are part of the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project, a recovery program launched in 1977 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) to conserve the species after it almost disappeared from the wild. Last November USFW updated the wolf recovery plan, with 320 wolves stated as the recovery goal in the designated Wolf Experimental Population Area, which spans the public lands and forests of Arizona and New Mexico.

The Mexican wolf recovery has been marred with scrutiny from all sides since the beginning by conservationists, ranchers and politicians. With conservationists saying the recovery plans don’t go far enough, and state lawmakers weary of federal oversight over its public lands; while also criticizing the potential negative impacts the wolf could have on the cattle industry that uses the land for grazing.

“The Mexican Gray Wolf recovery plan proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service is yet another federal regulatory nightmare for ranchers and Arizona’s rural communities,” Sen. Flake said in a press release on November 29, regarding the updated USFW wolf recovery plan. 

Shortly after the recovery plan was updated, Sen. Flake introduced bill S.2277 to Congress, which if passed, would strip wolves of their protections under the Endangered Species Act if this year’s survey determines there is at least a 100-wolf population in the recovery area. Under this bill, the management of the recovery plan would be transferred to Arizona wildlife officials if the population reaches the proposed 100-wolf benchmark.

"It is absolutely absurd that Sen. Flake would suggest that these wolves would be safe from the threat of extinction at over 100 animals, when they are very close to extinction now,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson. 

Flake’s bill has many conservationists concerned for the livelihood of the Mexican wolf because if the bill were to pass it would directly conflict with USFW’s recovery plan.  Advocates also say that the bill attempts to skirt the federal laws protecting wolves and other endangered species that are imperiled.

“Flake’s bill is not only an attack on the wolf it is an attack on the Endangered Species Act,” Robinson said. “There is no science today that says 100 Mexican wolves would persist and survive.”

Once a thriving species that roamed the southwest today the Mexican wolf, which is also known as the Lobo, only has a population of 113,which is over thirty years after wildlife specialists reintroduced the wolf back into the Southwest. After decades of intense removal by ranchers backed by government policy, the last seven Lobos that roamed the wild were captured to start a breeding program in hopes of recovering the species into perpetuity.

“There are seven founding animals that were the survivors of a previous era of government persecution,” Robinson said. “All these wolves in this population are very closely related almost as if they were siblings, and it is creating urgent problems for the Mexican wolf population in the prospect of entirely thwarting recovery.”

Despite all the recent scientific advances in genetics the wolf still has reproductive issues because of its lack of genetic diversity. There are only a few pups in the litters from wild-born wolves, and they have trouble surviving into adulthood, according to experts.

“All the real science shows that the wolves will still greatly be imperiled at that number (320, the current recovery goal) because it is not just very many animals when you are talking about the genetic bottleneck that the Mexican wolf went through,” he said.

Sen. Flake and others opposed to the federal wolf recovery plan say the growing wolf population is causing conflicts because wolves kill livestock and it can be costly for ranchers whose cattle graze in or near the recovery area.

“The livelihood of many Arizona ranchers are threatened by a wolf recovery plan that does not adequately address their serious concerns,” Sen. Flake said in an email statement to The Foothills Focus.  “Unlike the recovery plan called for in my Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan Act, this plan was developed without meaningful consultation and consideration of this significantly impacted group.”

However, advocacy groups say that wolves pose no real threat to the approximately one million cattle that graze in Arizona, and ranchers are entitled to reimbursement by the government if ranchers can prove a wolf killed their livestock.

“It is amazing how few times wolves ever did kill livestock, 90 percent of their diet is elk,” Robinson said.

Robinson and his colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity are concerned that Sen. Flake’s bill could be passed as a rider during this congressional session, and there is strong likelihood that the survey will result in a population greater than 100 wolves; potentially halting decades of conservation efforts.
“We believe the population will increase,” said Jim DeVos, the assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “There is ever more reason for optimism that we will see an increase.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the USFW for its current recovery plan, saying that 320 wolves are not sufficient enough to recover the Lobo.
“When you look at the equity of it all there is a tiny number of people who have suffered some inconvenience and basically don’t like the idea of wild Mexican wolves contributing to a healthy ecosystem,” Robinson said. “It’s unfortunate that policy is built around placating people who do not want compromise, they want extinction in many cases.”