Mexican gray wolves, or lobos, represent a great test case of the Endangered Species Act and how the federal government treats native wildlife more broadly. Wolves are vilified by a vocal minority, despite science and data showing they pose almost no threat to humans and impact livestock far less than health problems, weather, birthing fatalities, or theft. Lobos have the capacity to re-wild their historic range, and help to heal imperiled and fragile ecosystems and biodiversity in the desert southwest. That is, if they are allowed to.
Despite our reputation in some circles, WildEarth Guardians doesn’t love to litigate. But we do love lobos and that’s why we continue to rely on the legal system to protect this critical animal. This unique endangered species has only gotten a real chance to repopulate the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona via the courtroom. Since 1998, fitful moves toward true recovery have been spurred by lawsuits from such groups as WildEarth Guardians, and stunted by federal agencies – at the behest of backwards state wildlife agencies and a narrow set of private interests – unwilling to do what is necessary for true lobos recovery.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is now at the beginning of a rulemaking process that represents an opportunity to finally do the right thing. A federal judge found a slew of issues in the agency’s 2015 management rule and concluded that it “fails to further the recovery of the Mexican wolf.” The agency was told to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the rule. The scoping period for that rulemaking began last month, but already there are serious warning signs.
Scoping – soliciting feedback and ideas from a broad range of stakeholders – is done to determine the range of issues that should be examined in a rulemaking process. In order to comply with the court order, USFWS should be starting at ground zero in rewriting this rule. Unfortunately, the agency has signaled that it is willing to skip steps in order to prop up the interests of those few who are irrationally opposed to seeing native lobos recover throughout their historic range. Instead of following the best available science, it appears that the process will lean heavily on the discredited, state-sponsored, anti-wolf science behind the Trump administration’s deeply flawed 2017 recovery plan, which is being litigated itself.
A transparent and thorough process would not only follow the court’s order to rely on the best available science, but also truly involve broad public input. In these challenging times, that may require flexibility, including lengthening the comment period and taking additional steps to ensure that rural Americans – especially those who live in wolf country – have a genuine opportunity to have their voices heard. But, if recent history provides any clues, public input – and therefore public values – may be relegated behind the interests of a powerful few, the pattern of most public processes carried out by the Trump administration.
If USFWS appropriately values public sentiment and is guided by the best, independent science, lobos stand to make serious gains. A science-based rule would promote more releases of adult wolves into the wild to diversify the genetics of the population. It would limit lethal and non-lethal “removal” policies that have crippled wolf recovery. It would engage ranchers using public lands to do more to reduce conflict and foster coexistence. It would address rampant poaching, which is a huge obstacle to lobo recovery. And, finally, a science-based rule would designate the only wild population of Mexican gray wolves in the United States as “essential” for species recovery.
That’s what the science indicates will lead to real recovery. And that’s what the American public wants. We want to see the real recovery of lobos. And we want it done without litigation.
Christoper Smith, of Santa Fe, is the southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians.