Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing several changes to how the agency manages endangered Mexican wolves.
The proposal announced Wednesday would remove population limits, boost the number of wolf pups released into the wild each year, and restrict permits issued to livestock owners or state game agencies that allow killing of wolves if the animals prey on cattle, elk or deer.
Tracy Melbihess, Fish and Wildlife's Mexican wolf policy coordinator, said the changes would remove the upper population limit of 325 wolves in the agency's management area south of Interstate 40 in New Mexico and Arizona.
“It's intended to ensure that we have a robust population that has a really low risk of extinction,” Melbihess said.
The wolf was listed as a federally endangered species in 1976.
Wild wolf numbers have increased for five consecutive years. This year's estimates show 186 wild Mexican gray wolves in the two southwestern states.
Fish and Wildlife also wants to release enough wolves from captivity to ensure that at least 22 survive to breeding age, which is about 2 years old.
“Releasing wolves from captivity can improve the gene diversity in the wild,” Melbihess said.
Wildlife advocacy groups had a lukewarm response to the agency proposal.
Bryan Bird, Southwest program director at Defenders of Wildlife, lauded the population cap removal and the restrictions on lethal wolf removal permits. But he called the changes to the overall management plan a “disappointing” example of “measuring the effort rather than the results.”
“We wanted to see the area in which the wolves can roam be expanded,” Bird said. “We also wanted to see the target numbers for the population to be much higher.”
Michael Robinson, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the proposal is “not everything the Mexican wolf needs, but it's a big deal.”
Robinson took issue with the goal of at least 22 released wolves surviving to breeding age.
“That number doesn't actually measure genetic diversity and it doesn't measure whether these animals actually reproduced,” he said. “There is an alarmingly low survival rate of pups taken from their parents and placed with unrelated wolves, and there's absolutely no reason why adult wolves could not be released with them.”
The proposal will be open for a 90-day public comment period.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.