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Editorial: New wolf recovery plan needs to focus on science

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s long-awaited revision of its Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan – currently a draft but due in its final form by Nov. 30 – isn’t being fully embraced by environmental groups or cattle ranchers, which could indicate it’s a fair compromise.

But the plan, which hadn’t been updated since 1982, contains some serious flaws that appear to place political expediency ahead of science. Those shortcomings need to be addressed in the final document, as it will be the de facto road map for saving the Mexico gray wolf from extinction and ensuring a healthy ecosystem in southwestern New Mexico and Arizona.

Every existing Mexican gray wolf, also known as the lobo, traces its lineage to seven lobos captured in the wild in the late 1970s in an effort to prevent the wolves from becoming extinct. Those seven wolves were placed into a captive breeding program and, in 1998, some of their offspring were released into the wild under Fish and Wildlife’s reintroduction program.

Given their limited gene pool, ensuring the lobos’ genetic diversity remains a challenge. Efforts to improve the gene pool necessarily include establishment of several different wolf packs throughout the reintroduction area – another point of contention.

The draft plan calls for limiting the reintroduction to areas south of Interstate 40 in New Mexico and Arizona, similar to its historic range, which stretches from Albuquerque to Mexico City, and from Phoenix to San Antonio. Wolf advocates say that is too limiting while critics question the need to “reintroduce” wolves to places they never inhabited.

Bryan Bird with Defenders of Wildlife says much of the historic habitat has been lost to development – it’s highly unlikely they will settle around metro areas and interchanges – so defining a recovery area that focuses solely on historical range “would preclude recovery.”

Plus, he says “reintroducing the apex predator (or wolf) to the northern extent of its suitable habitat would return some balance to ecosystems overpopulated with elk and result in a ‘Yellowstone effect.’ ” Two decades ago, Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem was in decline and experiencing defoliation and riparian erosion because of an unbalanced ecosystem – much of which was caused by the disappearance of wolves and a subsequent boom in the elk and deer populations, which led to overgrazing. After wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the elk herds were thinned out, riparian area became re-vegetated, and other wildlife – birds, beavers, bears, etc. – returned. The ecosystem had rebalanced.

In addition to a faulty recovery area, Fish and Wildlife’s draft plan surmises the lobo could be taken off the endangered species list once its population reaches 320 in the United States and 170 in Mexico. At last count, there were 113 Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. at the end of 2016, and 28 in Mexico as of April 2017. Bird and other wolf proponents say the U.S. must have at least 750 wolves in the wild to ensure the genetic diversity needed to de-list the lobo.

And while some argue that Mexico isn’t doing its part in the wolf reintroduction program, Bird said Mexico is doing what it can with limited resources and little public land.

Ranchers complain that wolves prey on their livestock and, though they can receive compensation for livestock that are proven to have been killed by wolves, it’s too hard to qualify for a payment that’s too low. They also want the wolves taken off the endangered species list as soon as possible.

While a 2010 USDA study indicates only about 0.1 percent of livestock losses can be attributed to wolves, Bird references an innovative program that pays ranchers for wolf presence rather than predation, and it sounds like a smart compromise.

Expanding the wolves’ territory and gene pool are key to the wolf’s successful reintroduction. U.S. Fish and Wildlife needs to focus its draft plan on the science, which supports those changes, ahead of rhetoric or political expediency.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.