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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday finalized rules that change how the federal agency manages the endangered Mexican wolf.
The changes temporarily restrict who can relocate or lethally remove “problem wolves” or packs.
Livestock owners and state game agencies can receive permits for removing wolves that attack livestock, elk or deer.
Tracy Melbihess, Fish and Wildlife’s Mexican wolf policy coordinator, said the agency will continue to issue those permits to ranchers on federal and non-federal lands, but only if the FWS has met its annual population targets.
“For example, in 2022 we have met our annual benchmark for nine released wolves surviving to breeding age, so we would continue to issue permits,” Melbihess said. “Every year … those benchmarks increase by one to two wolves.”
The permit limits will expire when the agency reaches its new goal of 22 captive wolves surviving to breeding age in the wild by 2030.
FWS Southwest Region Director Amy Lueders said the agency wants to consider more non-lethal ways to resolve conflicts between ranchers and wolves.
In 2021, there were 79 confirmed livestock kills by New Mexico wolves.
Fish and Wildlife will also remove a population limit that capped the number of wild wolves in New Mexico and Arizona at 325.
“We are focused on growth of the population and improving its genetics,” Lueders said.
There are at least 196 Mexican wolves in the wild south of Interstate 40 in the two states.
The agency will now release more wolf pups from captivity into the wild.
Melbihess said more wolves placed into wild dens will improve gene diversity and reduce the threat of inbreeding.
Michael Robinson, a Center for Biological Diversity advocate, said he is disappointed that the changes don’t greenlight the release of adult wolves into the wild.
The group has long called for a total ban on the lethal removal program and speaks out against ranchers having access to wolf radio collar data.
Livestock owners insist that those options are necessary to manage the reintroduction of an apex predator in cattle country.
“Basically it translates to more dead wolves and wolves that will be unable to find genetically-suitable mates,” Robinson said.
New Mexico Game and Fish and the state Agriculture Department have signed on as partners in the recovery efforts, as have at least nine New Mexico counties.
Recent wildfires such as the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest have burned through core wolf habitat in New Mexico.
“But our initial reports show that wolves in the fire’s path have survived, and we do not expect population declines as a result,” Lueders said.