Federal agency outlines a plan to curb illegal killings of imperiled Mexican gray wolf

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted April 14, 2022 by Lindsey Botts

Federal officials released a set of steps this week meant to curb the illegal killing of endangered Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. Under the plan, the agency would work with state wildlife managers to increase education and outreach in communities where wolves live.

The new proposals stem from a 2018 lawsuit filed by a slew of conservation organizations that said the Trump administration's plan failed to follow the best available science on wolf recovery.

Conservations groups, including two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the inclusion of additional measures to curb vehicle accidents but fear the measures intended to reduce shootings, such as outreach and education, are a continuation of what’s already being done.

In October, a federal court judge in Arizona partially agreed that the plan was inadequate. They said it failed to address the illegal killing of wolves, or poaching. Human-caused mortality is the leading cause of death for Mexican wolves and is the main threat to their continued survival.

Almost 150 Mexican wolves have been illegally killed since 1998, when they were first released in an area that straddles the border of Arizona and New Mexico.

After the court ruled, the plan was remanded back to the USFWS, which was required to add site-specific, measurable actions to reduce poaching. This is the second revision to the original recovery plan, which remains mostly the same overall.

In her ruling, the judge wrote, "according to the Service, 16 of the 24 management actions listed (in the original plan) address the threat of mortality of the species. But review of the recovery actions shows that few relate to human-caused mortality. Further, many of the listed actions are so vague as to not constitute an action at all."

The USFWS said it followed the court's ruling in writing its plan revisions. But the agency did not include further recommendations made by conservation groups.

"The draft revised recovery plan we have developed maintains all elements of the 2017 recovery plan, but adds new recovery actions to the plan’s Recovery Action Table with their time and cost estimates, as well as a narrative section,” read the USFWS news release outlining the proposal.

Advocates concerned about some proposals

The new proposal includes several additions to the recovery action table that fit within at least four categories. They include increasing education and outreach to communities where Mexican wolves live, adding a greater law enforcement presence in so-called "mortality hot spots," installing signage near roads to reduce vehicle deaths, and using livestock avoidance measures near ranches to reduce conflict with cattle.

Some of the outreach efforts will include distributing materials that emphasize the difference between coyotes and wolves to avoid confusion. Since coyotes are hunted year-round, this could reduce instances where hunters shoot endangered Mexican wolves by mistake.

Other outreach proposals include sharing ways to reduce conflict with livestock, supporting non-lethal measures of deterrence, and releasing information about where wolves are so that hunters and ranchers know when wolves are in the area and how to avoid them. The goal behind this is to preempt killing.

That last point could have the opposite effect, say conservation advocates. USFWS already loans telemetry devices to ranchers so they're empowered to know when wolves are near, and Michael Robinson, the senior Southwest advocate for the Center, said this is likely a source of poaching, not a hindrance.

Historically, many ranchers have been antithetical to wolf recovery, some of them preferring to eradicate them rather than coexist. That same mentality has persisted to this day, advocates say. While wolves account for less than 1% of cattle deaths, they are often blamed as a primary source of depredation.

"The most important measure is to end the U.S. government facilitation of these illegal killings," said Robinson. "And they're facilitating it through providing telemetry receivers, that are pre-programmed by the government to the radio frequencies from the wolves' radio collars, to nongovernmental individuals, including to people who have sworn their enmity to the wolves."

Two people who had such receivers have pled guilty to crimes associated with illegally killing Mexican wolves, Robinson said.

He said many elements of the revisions were already in the original plan to some degree, leaving him and some advocacy groups fearful that the updates are more window dressing than substantive changes to the rule.

Another point not addressed, said Craig Miller, the senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, is the need for connected metapopulations. USFWS has tried to account for this by releasing captive-born pups into the wild and transporting individuals to Mexico, where a smaller population lives.

Reducing deaths is a state priority
Still, the new additions go into greater detail than what was previously included regarding site-specific actions to address poaching, a requirement stemming from the court ruling.

For instance, outreach and education have been tenets of the recovery plan since 2017, but the revision elaborates on how they might look in practice. The original plan mentions the word "outreach" six times. The new plan mentions it 22 times. A similar change occurs with the word "education."

Agency representatives said the recovery plan is a guidance document and allows them the flexibility needed to review and update as needed. So if vehicle accidents increase in one area, they'll be able to work with transportation officials "to determine whether signage on the roadway or other modifications may be beneficial."

And if hunter-related mortality increased, the agency could work with state partners on increased education.

"One of the important metrics we look at is the mortality rate of the population, as we recognize that the mortality rate needs to stay under a certain threshold in order for the population to grow (specifically, mean adult mortality rates less 25%)," read an agency statement. "We assess the causes of mortality in a given year, and over a period of years, to determine whether we need to adjust our management to better support the population."

The recovery plan also includes figures on each objective's estimated cost and time to complete. And it includes the names of partner agencies, which in all cases include the state wildlife agencies for Arizona and New Mexico, where the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area overlaps.

Arizona Fish and Game Department officials say curtailing illegal killing and fostering coexistence has always been a priority, one that they'll continue to work toward. Jim deVos, the assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, underscored this objective.

"The department supports all of the measures outlined in the FWS press release," he said. "The judge was clear that changes were required and the department worked with all of the cooperating agencies to identify reasonable methods to help reduce mortality rates.

"The AZGFD has a law enforcement presence that surpasses that of other agencies and our officers are often first to the mortality scene," deVos said "It is a violation of both state and federal statute and our officers will be involved as we have been all along."

Agency seeks further input
The federal agency is soliciting comments on the proposed revisions until May [16]. Individuals and groups are invited to weigh in on the federal register website at http://www.regulations.gov under Docket No. FWS-R2-ES-2022-0018. The final version of the proposal will be submitted by Oct. 14.

As a part of its continued effort to assess the program's progress, the agency will conduct a review every five and 10 years following the release of the original 2017 plan. Officials will also complete a species status review every five years, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act.

At this point, conservation advocates, like Miller from Defenders, hope that more efforts will be made to improve the plan, such as adding more connected populations.

"We do believe that the proposed revisions will improve Mexican wolves' chances at survival," says Miller. "But we remain deeply concerned that the plan still does not prescribe what's needed for full 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 azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.