After years of tireless activism and several successful lawsuits, advocates of wolf restoration are disappointed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest draft rule to “recover” endangered Mexican gray wolves, or lobos. Despite clear science, immense public support for lobos, and a federal judge’s order, the service can’t seem to do right by these icons of the Southwest.
The new rule stems from successful litigation by WildEarth Guardians and our allies over the original 2015 rule. A federal judge reprimanded the service, stating the 2015 rule “fails to further the long-term recovery of the Mexican wolf in the wild” and sent it back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, digging into the draft rule released by the service in late October reveals inadequacy, half-measures and lip service rather than real improvements.
The feds got one thing right in the new draft: They removed the hard cap on the wild population. The new rule would allow for more than 320 wolves to roam the wilds of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.
Other than the population cap removal, the rule fails to make strides toward recovering lobos. There is no real attempt to rescue them from the worsening genetic crisis in the wild population. These wolves are still barred from much of their historic range by arbitrary political boundaries. And protections against threats from some anti-wolf ranchers are lacking.
In an effort to inject diverse genetic material into the wild wolf population, the service is pledging to see 22 wolves from captivity reach breeding age after being placed into the wild. There is no certainty those wolves will actually reproduce and alleviate the genetic crisis. In fact, there are a number of factors that make it very likely few of those wolves will actually contribute their genes. The service continually collects genetic data – and that data should be used to determine when enough captive-bred wolves have been released into the wild. Releasing a set number of wolves isn’t a “genetic objective.”
Peer-reviewed science asserts a truly recovered lobo population would consist of three separate but connected sub-populations within the United States. The Grand Canyon region and the Southern Rockies offer excellent opportunities for the additional populations needed. The new rule continues a policy that mandates wolves that cross north of Interstate 40 be captured or killed. Expecting wild animals to heed something as arbitrary as an interstate is laughable and undermines their chances at recovery.
There are other flaws too. The only wild population of lobos in the U.S. is still considered “non-essential” to the recovery of the species as a whole, starving them of much-needed protections. Hostile ranchers, including known wolf-killers, are still given real-time data on where wolves are. And while there are a few new restrictions on when and where wolves can be killed, they are minor and temporary.
It’s not too late to get recovery right, but this is the last, best chance. The service still has time to fix the problems in the new rule and is taking public comments until Jan. 27. These wolves need a real genetic boost, access to their historic habitat, and more protections.