New rules would lift limits on Mexican gray wolves, but activists say changes fall short

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted October 30, 2021 by Lindsey Botts

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed updating the legal framework that governs the management of endangered Mexican gray wolves, lifting a limit on wolf populations and adding restrictions to how wolves can be killed.

The revisions, released Wednesday, are in response to a 2018 court ruling that ordered the agency to remedy several key issues outlined in a lawsuit filed by conservation groups in 2015. In that lawsuit, the groups claimed the rule failed to ensure the successful recovery of the species.

In the final ruling, a federal judge from Arizona agreed, stating that the "rule provides only for short-term survival of the species and fails to further the long-term recovery of the Mexican wolf in the wild." The case was remanded back to the agency.

To bring the rule into compliance with the law, the agency is proposing several changes to its regulations, which fall within the Nonessential Experimental Population rule for Mexican wolves, also called the 10(j) rule.

The revisions include removing the population cap, adding a genetic objective to address limited gene flow, and restricting several ways in which land managers and private landowners are allowed to kill wolves, also called take provisions.

During a press call on Wednesday, Tracy Melbihess, the Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican wolf policy coordinator, said "these proposed revisions are intended to bring the management of the experimental population into alignment with our 2017 Mexican wolf recovery plan. The recovery plan is the document that provides our long-term strategy and goals for Mexican health recovery."

Conservation groups like the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, applauded the ruling for removing the cap on the wild population, which would have allowed wildlife managers to kill wolves as soon as the population exceeded 325 animals.

But Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the center, said the proposed revisions fail to address some of the other flaws conservation groups cited with the original rule.

“The top-line thing is it's really good news that this cap is eliminated. It's an ominous cloud that no longer hangs over this growing wolf population,” Robinson said. “What this does is curb some of the worst abuses in current mismanagement, but it doesn't solve the more fundamental problem, which is the government prioritizing powerful livestock owners over the public interest in saving these imperiled animals.”

In addition, Robinson said, the proposal fails to include several conservation measures that biologists have been recommending for years. Such measures include requiring livestock owners to remove dead animals to prevent conflict, releasing family packs together instead of taking individual pups to release into the wild, and removing the restrictions on wolves leaving the experimental population area.

That last concern has been highlighted in recent years as wolves have dispersed north of the designated population area. This spring, "m2520," a young male wolf named Anubis by a group of middle-schoolers, made the 200-plus mile journey only to be returned to the area back in August.

As of Friday, Anubis was seen just south of Flagstaff, to the delight of wolf lovers in the area.

Another point of frustration for advocates and scientists in the revision is what they see as a low bar set for measuring the genetic health of the wild population. The agency is proposing to assess the health of the population by monitoring a simple numerical metric: if at least 22 captive cross-fostered pups survive to breeding age, two years old, in the wild.

But this does nothing to monitor the actual genetic health of the population, according to Carlos Carroll, an ecologist who served on an earlier version of the science and sub-planning committee for Mexican wolf recovery and whose work the judge said was misinterpreted when it was applied to the original 10(j) rule.

"For a lot of endangered species with small populations like California condor or black-footed ferret, they are actually monitoring genetic health directly. You can look at DNA samples from animals when we handle them, or use the known pedigree, to look at how related they are. So we don't need to use these kinds of surrogates like the number of wolves released," Carroll said. "I think (USFWS) tried to do the minimum possible that they think will pass judges scrutiny."

Wolf advocates and scientists also say the restrictions on killing wolves fall short of being really meaningful because the conditions under which they come into play are so narrow.

The USFWS is proposing three revisions: States can no longer kill wolves because of perceived effects on elk and deer populations, livestock owners could no longer kill wolves in the act of attacking livestock on federal land, and the agency would not grant permits to private landowners to kill wolves on their land.

The last two of those restrictions would only go into effect if the projected number of cross-fostered wolves failed to survive to breeding age and if one or more cross-fostered wolves had been killed under the provisions the year before. If neither or just one such situation was in effect, permits could still be issued to kill wolves.

USFWS would like to see at least seven captive-born pups released since 2016 survive in 2021, and the number increases gradually to 22 by 2030. For instance, next year, the goal is to document nine cross-fostered pups that survive to breeding age since the program began.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department reports that there are approximately 186 Mexican wolves in the wild, including 22 cross-fostered pups that were released this year.

In all, 72 captive-born pups have been released since the program began. Of the 30 cross-fostered pups released prior to 2020, USFWS reports that at least seven of them survived to breeding age, which means the restrictions on issuing permits to kill Mexican wolves would not go into effect if the proposed revisions were applied.

Federal officials released a draft Environmental Impact Statement on Friday, which includes a detailed outline of the anticipated effects of the proposed updated rule. The agency is reviewing three versions of the EIS. Option A would use all proposed revisions, Option B would use all proposed revisions except the restriction on killing wolves, and Option C would take no action.

The agency is seeking public comments on the proposal for the next 90 days and commenters are encouraged to write, email or leave an electronic comment at, using the Docket No. FWS-R2-ES-2021-0103. The final rule is expected to come out in July.

Starting next month USFWS will host several public meetings, one each month until January, where the public is invited to join.

“I think that there's a valid rationale for 10(j) populations, given the opposition to reintroducing species like wolves or grizzly bears. Politically speaking, you would never have had the reintroductions to Yellowstone without 10(j) designation," said Carroll.

"I think that there's a lot of flexibility with which the service can manage the 10(j) designation, so if they manage it in a way that's fairly cautious and protective of the species then it will work okay. If they allow a lot of take removal of wolves or do other things that they're allowed to do under 10(j), but are damaging to the population, then it will hinder recovery."

Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him about stories at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Environmental coverage on and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.