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NM game commission votes to support federal wolf recovery plan

Agreeing it's a program it can live with, if not love, the New Mexico State Game Commission voted 6-1 Thursday to support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recently revised Mexican wolf recovery plan.

Presentation of the plan topped the agenda at the commission's meeting in Albuquerque. Public comment was heard on both sides of the issue.

Cut to its bare bones, the plan's goal is to build the U.S. Mexican wolf population to 320 in its range in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, and to boost the number to 170 in Mexico. Latest counts show the U.S. population at 114 and the Mexican population at 28.

Dissatisfaction with Fish and Wildlife's handling of the program prompted the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to drop out of the recovery program's interagency field team in 2011 and led last year to New Mexico suing the agency to block the release of wolves in the state.

New Mexico claimed the agency did not have a sound plan for recovery. On June 20, the service issued a draft for a plan that would replace one created in 1982.

“The biggest difference from the previous plan is that this has objectives and measurable goals,” Stewart Liley, chief of the Game and Fish Department's wildlife management division, told Game Commission members during Thursday's meeting. “Another difference is cooperation with Mexico.”

Liley said he thought it possible that the plan's population goals could be reached in 10 to 15 years.

“I think, for New Mexico, it is a satisfactory plan,” he said.

Noting that the deadline for comment on the plan is Aug. 29, Paul Kienzle, Game Commission chairman, said he would entertain a motion to support the federal plan, subject to review if it was substantively changed, and also to submit a transcript of the commission's discussion at the meeting as a comment on the plan.

“No commissioner up here loves this plan,” Kienzle said. “I think this is a plan that the commission can support.”

Both wildlife advocacy groups supporting wolf recovery and members of the state's livestock industry, which opposes it, have expressed concerns about the new plan.

Michael Dax, New Mexico outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the organization does not believe the plan provides for sufficient genetic diversity to accomplish recovery.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said that ranchers, concerned about loss of livestock to wolves, were ignored completely during the development of the new plan.

“We don't like being dismissed as a social consequence,” she said.

But Game Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan made the motion to support the FWS plan.

“I'm willing to take the lumps from the farming and ranching community, as well as wildlife groups, because I want New Mexico to have a seat at the table,” Ryan said. “This plan encourages and mandates the federal government working with the state.”

Before voting to support the federal plan, commissioners grappled with worries about the recovery program's effect on livestock and the state's elk population, the degree of state input and the dependency of the plan on Mexico's cooperation.

“My preference is not to be linked to Mexico,” Kienzle said. “We have no control over what happens there. I firmly believe we can get the job done here.”