Proposed wolf recovery plan would speed extinction

The fledgling Mexican gray wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona is already in serious trouble, but if the Trump administration’s new recovery plan for these wolves is adopted, they’ll have at least one paw in the grave.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on (June 29) issued its draft Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, the long-awaited roadmap for pulling this unique gray wolf subspecies back from the brink and helping it thrive.

But alarmingly, the plan would strip wolves of federal protection well before their survival and recovery is secure, turning over management to state game departments that are hostile to their very existence.

We know what happens when wolves in such states lose protections. Since Congress removed federal protection from wolves in Idaho and Montana in 2011, more than 3,000 have been killed – and their numbers are dropping.

The Mexican wolf’s status is far direr, with just 113 individuals living in the United States and about 35 wolves in Mexico.

As seen in government responses to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Center for Biological Diversity, the draft plan was substantially influenced by the anti-wolf game departments of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado under marching orders from their governors to sharply limit the distribution and number of wolves.

The recovery plan should have been crafted by a team of qualified scientific experts in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for recovering endangered wildlife. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t get that treatment.

Instead the Trump administration installed one of the political hatchetmen for the anti-wolf cause – Utah Division of Wildlife Resources director Greg Sheehan – as acting service director. Now he can approve and finalize this draft, which his own former agency helped formulate, despite having no formal scientific training.

The proposed recovery roadmap would strip Mexican gray wolves of protection after their population reaches 320 animals in southern New Mexico and Arizona and 170 in Mexico, with no connection between them.

That proposal comes after a recovery team of some of the world’s top wolf scientists, convened by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012, determined that securing a future for Mexican wolves would require three interconnected populations of at least 750 wolves. Those would include two new populations centered on the Grand Canyon and adjoining areas in southern Utah, and the southern Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. That plan was never finalized, primarily because Utah officials objected.

But that connectivity is vital, as is the larger number of wolves that should exist before removal of protections, because the Mexican wolf went through a genetic bottleneck last century after decades of trapping and poisoning by the service on behalf of the livestock industry. Just seven wolves survived to pass on the subspecies’ genetic legacy through captive breeding.

Some of their descendants were reintroduced in the United States beginning in 1998 and Mexico in 2011. But U.S. mismanagement – trapping and shooting wolves to curry favor with livestock owners, releasing too few wolves from captivity – coupled with a weak genetic base has resulted in wolves that are as genetically close to each other as siblings.

More wolves from different populations mating with each other is the only way to stave off extinction.

The connected areas identified by the scientists five years ago – including New Mexico’s Gila National Forest – would let wolves migrate back and forth, mixing and raising pups to improve the gene pool.

Mexican gray wolves are beautiful, intelligent, social mammals whose fate depends on ecosystem balance. They have been the victims of political mismanagement for far too long. This highly politicized draft plan will not lead to recovery and should be replaced by a plan based on science.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a public meeting from 2 to 5 p.m. July 22 in Albuquerque to discuss the draft Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan. It is at the Crowne Plaza, 1901 University Boulevard NE.

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