Fed’s ‘Recovery’ Plan Puts Politics Before Science
Risks Recovery of Highly Endangered Mexican Gray Wolves
Tucson, Ariz. – Despite the recommendations of scientists, the draft recovery plan for the lobo or Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unnaturally limits the population size and range of this subspecies in the Southwest. Exclusion of millions of acres of suitable habitat near Grand Canyon, north of the current recovery area, and an artificial cap on population size will limit real recovery of this species to a state-managed token animal instead of allowing it to fulfill its important role in maintaining ecosystem health.
“The proposed downlisting and delisting criteria specified in the plan show that the Fish and Wildlife Service is anxious to get the management of these animals to state agencies, including the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which is overseen by a decidedly anti-wolf commission that has demonstrated strong hostility to recovery of Mexican wolves,” said Greta Anderson, Arizona Director for Western Watershed Project. “It’s less about recovery than it is an abdication of its own duties to ensure viable populations of wolves in the Southwest and to secure the future of this species.”
Instead of moving forward with a draft plan based on science-based recommendations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed the recovery planning process to be delayed and subverted due to political pressures from Arizona and the other three states important to Mexican wolf recovery. These pressures have focused on keeping wolves south of Interstate 40 and limited in population size to a number far below scientific recommendations.
“It is critical that some of the best habitat in Arizona for wolves – the Grand Canyon region – be part of this recovery effort,” said Emily Renn, Executive Director of Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. “Capping the population and limiting the region for recovery so severely is not a recipe for a recovered Mexican wolf population.”
The population cap would compromise the scientific standards of the Endangered Species Act and leave recovery of a critically endangered species in the hands of the states. New Mexico has undermined meaningful recovery by blocking releases of wolves to the wild, and Arizona has recently moved to wield more control over the program, seemingly inspired by New Mexico’s actions. Last time Arizona ran the program, between 2003 and 2009, the wolf population in the wild actually declined.
“The agency claims that this plan will ensure resiliency, redundancy, and representation, but it is willing to go as low as 150 wolves in the U.S. for the purposes of downlisting – that is far from recovered and a dangerously low number,” said Sandy Bahr, Chapter Director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “Downlisting the species to ‘threatened’ will likely trigger even fewer protections for these animals.”
“The captive-breeding program that we operate aims to release wolves into their ancestral homes in the wild, but the success of our efforts requires a legitimate, science-based recovery blueprint that will ensure the survival of these iconic and imperiled wolves. This is not what the Fish and Wildlife Service delivered,” said Maggie Howell, Director of the Wolf Conservation Center.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service convened a recovery planning team in 2010 that included a Science and Planning Subgroup made up of some of the top wolf experts in the country. The Science and Planning Subgroup developed draft recommendations for recovery of the Mexican gray wolf based on the best available science, which included the following:
- In addition to the current wild population of Mexican gray wolves in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, two new core populations must be established in the Grand Canyon region in northern Arizona and southern Utah and in the Southern Rockies region in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, areas containing the most suitable habitat for Mexican gray wolves.
- Natural dispersal must be possible between the three core populations through habitat connectivity.
- Each of the three populations must have a minimum of 200 wolves and, together, must have, at the very least, 750 wolves.
- There must be a decrease in human caused mortality.
- Genetic rescue of the wild population must be addressed.
An abundance of research demonstrates the important role that wolves can play in restoring health and balance to the ecosystems they inhabit. Wolf-related tourism brings an estimated $35 million in annual tourist revenue to the Greater Yellowstone region. Similar economic and ecological benefits are very likely in Arizona once wolves are fully restored to the landscape.
In a 2013 poll of registered voters, 87 percent of Arizonans agreed that “wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage,” and 83 percent agreed that “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help wolves recover and prevent extinction.”
The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to prevent extinction and to bring species back to healthy population levels. This law – passed nearly unanimously, signed by a Republican president, and supported by the majority of Americans and Arizonans – has a proven record of preventing more than 99 percent of species extinctions. Federal authority to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats is clearly established. Although cooperative programs exist among states and the federal government, state conservation programs must be at least as protective of a species as the Endangered Species Act. Efforts to recover endangered species, including Mexican gray wolves, must be based on the best available science, not politics.
There were only 113 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico at last official count, with just a small population now in Mexico. The widespread misinformation that led to the near complete extinction of these wolves is disproven by our current understanding of the important role wolves play in healthy functioning ecosystems – and by overwhelming public support for recovery of the world’s rarest gray wolf subspecies.