But the proposal – outlined in a draft record of decision published Tuesday – also grants ranchers broader authority to shoot wolves dead if they prey on livestock or domestic animals.
The preliminary decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the culmination of a two-year review in which the agency fielded some 40,000 public comments, according to Mexican wolf recovery coordinator Sherry Barrett.
“Probably nobody fully embraces our proposal because one side wanted much, much more and one side wanted much, much less,” Barrett said. “We’re trying to strike a balance with the goal of recovering the Mexican wolf.”
The Mexican wolf is the smallest, rarest and southern-most-occurring subspecies of gray wolf in North America. Heavy hunting of the top predator in the early part of last century nearly drove the animal to extinction. When the captive breeding program began in 1980 after the wolf’s listing as an endangered species four years earlier, there were only seven known survivors.
The federal government began releasing bred wolves into the wild beginning in 1998. Today the population has grown slowly to about 83 animals under a management program that hasn’t changed substantially since that year.
According to the draft record of decision, the new rule would take effect in 2015 and would:
- Increase available wolf habitat, extending the management area boundary in all directions including south to the U.S.-Mexico border and north to Interstate 40;
- Allow wolves to be directly introduced from captivity into the Gila wilderness;
- Add “management flexibility” to respond to depradation or nuisance behavior, including permits for landowners to kill wolves under certain circumstances; and
- Include a population objective of 300 to 325 wolves in the wild.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said the area where wolves can roam would grow from 7 million acres to nearly 98 million acres under the new plan phased in over 12 years. He lauded that expansion as well as the provision to release wolves bred in captivity directly into the Gila.
Currently, wolves may be relocated to the Gila from other wild habitat but not released there out of captivity. New releases there will increase genetic diversity – the lack of which is a key threat to recovering the population, he said.
“Wolves will get significantly more room to roam,” he said. “The Gila has literally millions of acres in it that don’t have a single territorial wolf. A lot of that is country with deer, elk – roadless country. That is the most positive element.”
At the same time, the proposed rule grants ranchers and property owners broader authorization under some circumstances to “take” a Mexican wolf – meaning injure or kill. That includes if the wolf is in the act of biting, killing or wounding a domestic animal such as livestock or non-feral dogs. Permits may be issued to take wolves present on non-federal land.
While those provisions irk wolf advocates, they aim to satisfy ranchers angered by wolves preying on their livestock.
Laura Schneberger, a rancher in Sierra County and president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, said she is “relieved” by the provision that will allow her to protect her dogs, but she is waiting to see the final rule.
After a final 30-day comment period, the rule is expected by Jan. 12, 2015.