US seeks more time to rewrite Mexican wolf management rules

Arizona Daily Sun (Original) Posted on March 16, 2021 by Susan Montoya Bryan for the Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — U.S. wildlife officials are asking a federal judge for more time to rewrite rules that guide management of North America's rarest subspecies of gray wolf, saying they will miss a court-ordered deadline to have plans for the Mexican gray wolf formalized by May.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a recent motion filed in U.S. District Court pointed to population gains that Mexican wolves have made in the last five years but noted that further environmental and economic analysis needs to be done. The agency also cited the need to compile more data and hold public meetings if it is to meet the requirements of federal environmental laws in revamping the rules.

Lawyers for the agency also listed the pandemic and limited staff as challenges to meeting the deadline.

“The Service has fewer staff who are investing most of their time and resources into managing a larger wild population that has nearly doubled since 2014 and trying to reduce livestock conflicts and address illegal killings,” the motion stated. "Therefore, the fewer staff are having to spend the majority of their time being responsible for on-the-ground field work, which has not allowed for their substantive participation revising the rule.”

Environmentalists are opposed to more delays, saying the agency has had nearly three years to draft a final rule.

Bryan Bird with Defenders of Wildlife said he believes the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to get recovery right but a 14-month extension isn't necessary.

“The science is clear. The wolves require a better management approach now, they cannot wait a moment longer,” said Bird, who has stressed over the years that finding a way for wolves to coexist with rural communities in New Mexico and Arizona will be key.

He said the approach needs to focus on reducing livestock losses, releasing bonded wolf pairs from captivity and expanding the recovery area to include more northern reaches of the Southwest.

But ranchers are worried their concerns are being ignored as the legal maneuvering continues.

Livestock deaths spiked in 2018 and 2019 and more than 150 cattle kills were confirmed last year. They said that's despite changes to grazing rotations, moving cattle to other pastures when wolves are around and using riders on horseback, flagging and firecrackers to scare away the animals.

Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand said the county signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government two years ago to have a seat at the table.

"They’re not holding up their end of the bargain," she said. “They just give us the run around. It’s really hard to be heard.”

Just last week, she learned that an injured wolf was near her family's ranch but federal wildlife managers had not notified her. The animal apparently wandered dozens of miles from its pack and got caught in a trap somewhere along the way. She said it was days before wildlife officers returned to capture the animal so it could be treated.

Hand said it would be helpful if the Fish and Wildlife Service was more transparent about the program. She said ranchers have been proactive in moving their cattle once they know there’s a wolf there, but that notification sometimes never comes.

“We can keep reaching out to them and reaching out to them and hope that they’ll eventually try to work with us,” she said. “It’s just getting harder and harder to work with them.”

Aside from being short-staffed, the agency said in the court filings that it continues to work with ranchers to expand techniques for mitigating conflicts between wolves and livestock. Other options have included food caches to divert wolves and purchasing hay and supplements for livestock.