This summer the federal government plans to release Mexican gray wolf pups bred in captivity directly into New Mexico for the first time – part of what it says is an effort to encourage the endangered lobo’s recovery – if the state grants permission.
Wolves have been bred in captivity in New Mexico for years but then released in Arizona, where some eventually were captured for one of various reasons and then relocated to New Mexico.
But a new management rule that took effect in February permits the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce “new” wolves, or those bred in captivity, directly into the New Mexico wild – a critical step, advocates say, toward improving the genetics of the population.
Wolf advocates say they are concerned about the fate of permit requests by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pending before the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to release new wolves. They say the department’s governor-appointed commission took a swipe at the recovery program last week when it denied Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch a permit to host wolves on its property in New Mexico. It had been doing so for 17 years.
Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, told the Journal last week that the Game and Fish Commission took no issue with how the Ladder Ranch has been run but expressed opposition to the federal wolf recovery program “as currently constituted.”
On Friday, dozens of wolf advocacy groups from California to New York signed a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez asking her to reverse that decision, which they say could complicate the federal government’s work in reintroducing wolves to their native landscape.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service historically has used large pens at the Ladder Ranch as way stations for Mexican wolves being introduced to, or pulled from, the wild ever since the reintroduction program began in 1998.
The commission’s denial of the Turner permit “takes away a tool” for wolf recovery, said Eva Sargent, director of the Southwest Program at Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group. “If the department were to start to deny permits to release wolves, that would imperil the program.”
The Game and Fish Department confirmed it is reviewing requests by the FWS to release into the Gila wilderness a pair of wolves and their pups, and to import and release up to 10 wolves into New Mexico. Department Director Alexa Sandoval is charged with making a determination.
Game and Fish told the Journal in an emailed response to questions that it is reviewing information and “there is not a set time frame for a response.”
The FWS told the Journal in an emailed response to questions that the permit requests to import and release up to 10 wolves “are for pups less than two weeks old that may be born at a captive facility elsewhere, and brought into the state to release into a wild den,” a practice known as cross-fostering.
There are 109 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, according to the FWS’ latest count.
Advocates say releases of new wolves into the wild is critical to the reintroduction program, due to the lack of genetic diversity in a population that was bred over the past four decades from just seven wolves.
Asked whether the FWS needs state approval to release wolves onto federal public land, the FWS said it has “federal statutory responsibility to recover Mexican wolves” but added, “We are most effective when partnering with the states.”
“Our desire is to work with the state toward the recovery of the Mexican wolf, which will eventually lead to state management of the species,” the FWS said.
New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department is funded in large part by $20 million in hunting, trapping and fishing licenses sold annually. Its mission is “to conserve wildlife and provide recreational opportunities that benefit everyone,” according to its website.
Laura Schneberger, a rancher in Sierra County and president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, said she supported the Game and Fish Commission’s decision to deny the Turner permit, given how “the Fish and Wildlife Service has run roughshod over the state and the people who are dealing with the wolves.”
“That’s why the state is strong-arming them on this issue,” she said. “I don’t think that’s asking too much, especially considering the damage that is being done.”
Many ranchers in the state oppose the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program on grounds that wolves target their livestock.
The new wolf management rule expanded the territory where Mexican gray wolves can roam in New Mexico from south of I-40 to the Mexican border, and broadened where the FWS can introduce “new” wolves to include federal lands in New Mexico.