A contentious backdrop

Arizona Daily Sun (Original) Posted January 24, 2016 by Emery Cowan

The purely scientific focus of the annual Mexican gray wolf count stands in contrast to the longstanding, constantly churning and politically charged debate about the effort to recover the species. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed revisions to regulations for managing the Mexican wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona. The new rule provides for a 20-fold increase in areas within which Mexican wolves can naturally disperse and occupy and a tenfold increase in the area where Mexican wolves can initially be released from captivity.

But it the change has already faced pushback. The nonprofit organizations Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit against the plan in March of last year saying it will continue to impede Mexican gray wolf survival and recovery.

Also last year, state wildlife commissions in New Mexico and Arizona voted to prohibit the reintroduction of captive wolves into their states. Those votes, however, can be superseded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's authority under the Endangered Species Act. The service is moving forward with a plan to release and translocate wolves into territory newly authorized by the 2015 rule change, said Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There weren't any successful releases in 2015, Barrett said.

In recent months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has restarted work on a recovery plan for the Mexican wolves that it expects to finish by the end of 2017. In 2014, conservation organizations sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force it to come up with that recovery plan within a year.

The agency had started working on the plan in 2010 and a section of the draft was leaked that recommended a minimum population of 750 wolves and the establishment of two new core populations in the Grand Canyon region and in the southern Rockies region.

While environmental groups continue to call for those expanded numbers, in November the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell staunchly opposing expansion, release and occupancy of Mexican wolves north of Interstate 40, saying the area was not historically occupied by the animals. When Barrett weighed in, she said the science really isn't settled on that one.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is starting to hold workshops for scientists and representatives of local, state, federal and tribal agencies to restart work on a Mexican wolf recovery plan, but environmental groups have railed against what they say are the "closed door meetings."

The first workshop, held in December, went well and produced agreement on the modeling used to guide recovery planning, Barrett said.

While wolf managers' preference is for the wolves to occupy their historical range, factors like climate change may require looking outside of that area to accomplish recovery, she said.