A wolf’s eyes have the power to speak a great language. What do you suppose this critically endangered red wolf is saying?
Four decades after Endangered Species Act protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally have to complete a plan to recover the Mexican gray wolf.
U.S. Judge Jennifer Zipps in the District of Arizona on Monday dismissed the concerns of ranchers and others and signed off on a settlement between a coalition of 5 environmental groups (including the Wolf Conservation Center) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under the settlement agreement, USFWS is required to:
- Complete a Mexican wolf recovery plan by Nov. 30, 2017
- Conduct an independent peer review of the draft plan, and
- Provide status reports on the recovery planning process to the court and the parties every six months until the recovery plan issues.
Furthermore, the above terms are now judicially enforceable as a result of the court’s ruling.
“The settlement announced today provides hope that the lobo can be a living, breathing part of the southwestern landscape instead of just a long-lost frontier legend,” said Tim Preso, Earthjustice attorney. “But to realize that hope, federal officials must take up the challenge of developing a legitimate, science-based recovery plan for the Mexican wolf rather than yielding to political pressure.”
Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in November 2014 to challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s multi-decade delay in completing a recovery plan for the Mexican wolf. Earthjustice represents Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, retired Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator David R. Parsons, the Endangered Wolf Center and the Wolf Conservation Center in the case. Today, after a lengthy delay, the federal district court in Tucson, Arizona issued an order approving the settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so a path to recovery for the critically endangered Mexican gray wolves can at last be realized.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” said Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center in New York. “And for these iconic and imperiled wolves, failure means extinction. This settlement represents a necessary and long overdue step toward recovering America’s most endangered gray wolf and preventing an irrevocable loss from happening on our watch.”
The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)—the “lobo” of southwestern lore—is the most genetically distinct lineage of wolves in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most endangered mammals in North America. By the mid-1980s, hunting, trapping, and poisoning caused the extinction of lobos in the wild, with only a handful remaining in captivity. In 1998 the wolves were reintroduced into the wild as part of a federal reintroduction program under the Endangered Species Act. Today in the U.S., there is a single wild population in the Blue Range area of Arizona and New Mexico comprising only 97 individuals, all descendants of just seven wild founders of a captive breeding program. These wolves are threatened by illegal killings, legal removals due to conflicts with livestock, and a lack of genetic diversity. Within the past year alone, escalating mortalities and illegal killing, along with reduced pup survival, reduced the wild population from 110 to 97 individuals.
The Service has never written or implemented a legally sufficient Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. Its most recent recovery team has done extensive, rigorous work to determine what needs to be done to save the Mexican gray wolf. Recovery team scientists agreed that, in order to survive, lobos require the establishment of at least three linked populations. Habitat capable of supporting the two additional populations exists in the Grand Canyon ecoregion and in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The recovery team drafted a plan in 2012 that called for establishing three interconnected Mexican gray wolf populations totaling at least 750 animals in these areas, but the plan has never been finalized.
The team of scientists who drafted the Population Viability Analysis (PVA) for the red wolf state in a letter that U. S. Fish Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) decision to pull almost all of the last remaining wild red wolves and place them in captivity was based on “many alarming misinterpretations” of their scientific analysis.
“As the scientific team conducting the population viability analysis (PVA) of the future status of red wolves, we were pleased at USFWS’ desire to use the best available science to inform decision-making. Unfortunately, the September 12th decision on the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program included many alarming misinterpretations of the PVA as justification for the final decision.”
The June 2016 PVA report summarizes modeling for both the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) population and the wild population in North Carolina. Their results highlight the successes of the SSP and wild populations, the challenges they face, and the management actions that can help them.
“The most conspicuous misinterpretation of these results in the USFWS decision is focused on the SSP – that “the species is not secured in captivity” and that “with no changes to current management, the species will likely be lost within the next decade.”
Their letter clarifies appropriate interpretations of the PVA’s recommendations re: both the captive SSP and wild populations and warns that USFWS’s singular focus on captive SSP population “will no doubt result in the extinction of red wolves in the wild.”
The fact that USFWS, the very agency charged by federal law with protecting endangered species, is basing species recovery decisions on ”alarming misinterpretations” of science is just another blow the agency has delivered to the World’s most endangered wolf species.
Due to the Service’s neglect and inaction over the past few years, only 45 red wolves remain in the wild.