New Mexico wildlife panel denies federal wolf permit appeal

Arizona Daily Sun (Original) Posted on September 29, 2015 by Susan Montoya Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A showdown over the Mexican gray wolf left the federal government vowing Tuesday to move ahead with plans to recover the endangered species despite the refusal of state wildlife officials to issue permits allowing for the release of wolves in New Mexico.

The New Mexico Game Commission denied an appeal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a packed meeting in Albuquerque.

The move prompted a chorus of boos from the dozens of people in the audience who were holding signs that read "More wolves, less politics." No public comment on the matter was allowed.

Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service said they were disappointed with the outcome given that delaying releases could compromise the genetics of the wild population in New Mexico and Arizona.

Sherry Barrett, coordinator of the Mexican wolf recovery program, did not address accusations that politics played a role in the state's decision but said her agency has a duty under federal law to help the species.

"Our goal is recovery," she said after the meeting. "We still need to move forward with releases of wolves to address the genetic health of the population."

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a policy of consulting with states and complying with permit requirements except in instances where the U.S. Interior Department secretary determines that doing so would compromise the agency's ability to meet its responsibilities.

The agency initially sought permits to release a pair of wolves and their pups onto federal land in New Mexico and to allow for up to 10 captive pups to be raised by foster wolves in the wild.

The requests were denied in June by state Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval, who said federal officials did not provide enough information for her to determine if wolf releases would conflict with other state conservation efforts.

The Fish and Wildlife Service argued Sandoval's decision was arbitrary and not based on law or regulation. The agency pointed out in a lengthy filing that the director never cited any statutes, regulations or policies regarding conservation management to show there would be a conflict.

The agency also dismissed criticisms that it lacked an updated recovery plan, saying a recently adopted rule for managing the experimental population spells out population objectives and weighs the effects of more wolves on elk, deer and other wildlife in an expanded recovery area.

Game Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said the commission wasn't deciding the value of the wolf program or the validity of federal policies, only whether the game director made a "reasonable and rational" decision in denying the permits.

There are at least 109 wolves roaming parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Federal officials hope to eventually triple that number and curb the effects of inbreeding.

Barrett said the goal is to eventually remove the wolves from the endangered species list and return the predators to state control. She called it a recoverable species.

"In the case of the Mexican wolf, it was eradicated from the wild as a result of intolerance," she told commissioners. "The greatest impediment right now to its recovery is social intolerance. Those are things we can work together to overcome."

A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976.

Reintroduction started in 1998, but the effort has been hampered over the years by politics, illegal killings and other factors. Disputes over the program's management have spurred numerous legal actions by environmentalists who want more wolves released and by ranchers concerned about their livelihoods and safety in rural communities.