Arizona commission backs request to remove wolves from endangered list

The Arizona Republic (original) Posted on March 20, 2013 by Brandon Loomis

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission on Wednesday voted to back an effort by Western lawmakers to remove gray wolves from the endangered-species list.

The commission unanimously supported a letter by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to drop federal protections for wolves nationwide.

That would include Mexican gray wolves, which have struggled to find a foothold in the Southwest since reintroduction in 1998, though the commission reasserted its support for at least 100 "wolves on the ground."

That's a number that wolf supporters find unacceptable, and they don't trust the state to nurse the animals to a fully recovered population.

But Hatch and Lummis, in their March 15 letter to Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, said that wolves are not endangered and that states don't need federal meddling on the predators' behalf.

"Unmanaged wolves are devastating to livestock and indigenous wildlife," they wrote. "Currently, state wildlife officials have their hands tied any time wolves are involved."

Commission Chairman Jack Husted said wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains — reintroduced in the 1990s, just like Arizona's — have thrived to the point that they are damaging prey populations such as elk. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have hosted more than 1,000 wolves between them for years. "We've time and again voiced our support for wild wolves on the ground (in Arizona)," Husted said, "but not in unlimited numbers."

When federal officials released Mexican gray wolves from captive breeding programs into the mountains of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, they discussed an initial goal of 100 animals.

They were unsure how many might actually be needed to support a perpetual population and left that prescription to be determined in a recovery plan that still has not been completed.

Although federal biologists this year reported a record number of wild Southwestern wolves — 75, split about evenly between the two states — wolf proponents say it's nowhere near a safe number. They're awaiting the recovery plan, which could designate new areas for reintroduction, such as the forests around the Grand Canyon.

Gray wolves' legal status is complicated. Alaska's plentiful packs have long been state-managed. Wolves brought from Canada to the northern Rockies, like those rebounding naturally in the upper Great Lakes states, have thrived to the point that federal officials have already dropped them from the endangered list.

But any that take up residence outside their official recovery zones — in eastern Utah, for instance — would enjoy full federal protection.

The Southwest's wolves are physically the smallest North American subspecies and numerically the smallest population, and they remain legally protected from such actions as sport hunting.

Hatch and Lummis seek a blanket removal of federal oversight.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, said the commission would have more credibility in backing that move if the state had ever seriously supported wolf recovery.

"There's no demonstration of commitment," she said. Seventy-five animals don't add up to success, she added. "Common sense tells you these are endangered animals."

Defenders of Wildlife also condemned the commission's vote, saying it defies polls that have shown that most Arizonans support wolf recovery.