Feds release final revisions to Mexican wolf recovery plan, detail species' road to recovery

Grand Canyon News (Original) Posted December 5, 2017 by Erin Ford

Environmental groups call planning process 'dishonest,' say the science is flawed

ALBUQUERQUE — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has completed a revision to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan. The goal of the plan is to provide guidance to recover the subspecies and remove it from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife and turn its management over to the appropriate states and tribes after delisting.

The original Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, published in 1982, focused on reintroduction and recovery efforts to halt the extinction of the Mexican wolf.

Since 1998, USFWS has been reestablishing a wild population of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico that numbered at least 113 in 2016. Mexico began releasing Mexican wolves in 2011 and now has a wild population of about 31.

The recovery strategy outlined in the revised plan is to establish two Mexican wolf populations distributed within the subspecies’ historical range in the United States and Mexico. This strategy for the Mexican wolf addresses the threats to the species, including human-caused mortality, extinction risk associated with small population size, and the loss of gene diversity.

At the time of recovery, USFWS expects Mexican wolf populations to be stable or increasing in abundance, well-distributed geographically within their historical range, and genetically diverse. In the United States, the recovery strategy for the Mexican wolf will be implemented south of I-40 in Arizona and New Mexico, in the area designated as the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area.

In Mexico, federal agencies are focusing on Mexican wolf recovery efforts in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Sonora, Durango, and Chihuahua.

“Mexican wolves are on the road to recovery in the Southwest thanks to the cooperation, flexibility and hard work of our partners,” said Amy Lueders, the Service’s Southwest Regional Director. “This spirit of collaboration is going to help us meet the recovery goals for this species. States, tribes, landowners, conservation groups, the captive breeding facilities, federal agencies and citizens of the Southwest can be proud of their roles in saving this sentinel of wilderness.”

But some conservationists, including the Center for Biological Diversity’s Michael Robinson, calls the plan dishonest.

Robinson said the process was comprised of about six meetings with state game departments, and those game departments were operating under a preconceived notion of a specific number of wolves they wanted to see on the ground.

The magic number is 320 wolves, which Robinson said is far from a viable number to sustain a wild population in perpetuity. Officials arrived at that number by using an algorithm that accounts for both population growth and factors that limit that growth, such as a lack of genetic diversity or disease, such as parvo.

“Essentially, they cooked the books so to speak to arrive at the number they wanted, which is 320 wolves,” Robinson said.

According to Robinson, officials failed to account for factors that could cause significant setbacks, such as supplemental feeding.

“Game and fish departments plan to continue supplemental feeding, because when wolves are fed, they are less likely to prey on livestock,” he said. “In reality, it masks a high mortality rate.”

Aside from supplemental feeding, which will continue for at least 100 years under the recovery plan, Robinson said the document also contains no criteria for assessing whether or not genetic diversity is improving.

“They plan to release enough captive animals for exactly 22 wolves to reach the breeding age of two years, and that’s an arbitrary number unsupported by fact,” Robinson said. “They just came up with that number and thought it might be enough.”

David Parsons, former Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for USFWS, said the plan is lacking in scientific justification, despite hundreds of pages of published studies.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service published over 250 pages of supporting ‘scientific’ justification, used a sophisticated model to predict extinction probabilities, then tossed the science aside and asked the states how many wolves they would tolerate with no scientific justification whatsoever,” Parsons said. “Using the states’ arbitrary upper limit as a population cap in the population viability model and forcing additional recovery needs to Mexico, the plan will guarantee that from now to eternity no more than a running average of 325 Mexican wolves will ever be allowed to exist in the entire U.S. Southwest. This plan is a disgraceful sham.”

Another part of the problem is the plan relies on cultivation of a significant population of wolves in the Sonoran region of Mexico, according to Robinson.

“It’s a tradeoff that’s worrisome,” he said. “They figure since there’s plenty of them (wolves) in Mexico, we don’t have to have them anywhere else.”

That creates another problem with genetic diversity, since the two populations are far removed from each other geographically. Genetically valuable wolves won’t be able to breed, adding a much-needed boost to the gene pool.

According to USFWS, the revised recovery plan was developed with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah; the Forest Service; and federal agencies in Mexico to enable recovery of the Mexican wolf while ensuring the needs and interests of local communities are fully considered. It includes consideration of geographic distribution, population abundance, genetic management, monitoring and adaptive management, and ongoing collaboration with partners to recover the Mexican wolf in a manner that minimizes effects on local communities, livestock production, native ungulate herds and recreation.

In April 2016, the Service signed a Settlement Agreement with the State of Arizona and Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations to complete a final revised Mexican wolf recovery plan by the end of November 2017.

The revised recovery plan and related documents can be reviewed at: https://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/