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Mexican wolf may lose protected status

A bill introduced in Congress this week would remove the Mexican gray wolf from the Endangered Species List and effectively end the federal program to reintroduce the wolf into the wild.

U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Paul Gosar of Arizona, both Republicans, introduced the “Mexican Wolf Transparency and Accountability Act” on Thursday.

The bill, HR 2910, would remove federal protection for the Mexican gray wolf and nullify the latest rule governing how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the wolf’s reintroduction to its historic habitat in New Mexico and Arizona. That rule broadly expanded the area where wolves can be reintroduced to most of southern New Mexico between I-40 and the Mexican border.

“The FWS has never really explained how they are going to get (the Mexican gray wolf) to delisting,” Pearce said, referring to a decades-old recovery plan that has not been updated by the FWS despite three attempts to do so.

Pearce said the federal wolf reintroduction program “would be replaced by the state.” New Mexico would assume management of the species, he said.

“I don’t think there is any attempt here that the wolf go extinct,” he said. “The numbers are shown to be increasing. They just don’t have a process to take it out of the recovery program. It’s a big economic problem. It’s a safety problem. It’s going to become a bigger problem now that they’ve expanded the area.”

FWS spokesman Gavin Shire said the agency does not comment on pending legislation unless asked to testify before Congress.

Endorsed by farm and ranching groups that have long opposed the reintroduction of a top predator onto public lands, the bill is vehemently opposed by wolf advocates.

“Ideally, we’d like to see the program go away,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association in Albuquerque. “We believe it is a failed experiment.”

After listing them under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began breeding Mexican gray wolves in captivity from the last seven animals in the species known to exist. In 1998, the FWS began releasing wolves into the wild in limited numbers.

The wild population has grown to more than 100 animals in New Mexico and Arizona, according to the latest FWS wolf census; about 250 remain in captivity.

“This is a retrograde bill that seeks to keep the Mexican wolf on the brink of extinction forever,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Robinson and other wolf advocates have also been pressing the FWS to develop a modern recovery plan for the species, but they don’t support ending the federal reintroduction program altogether, as HR 2910 would do.

Congress has stripped a wolf species of federal protection before. Tacked as a rider onto a bill funding the government in 2011, Congress removed the northern Rockies gray wolf from the Endangered Species List and ended federal management of the species in several Northwestern states.

“When they did that, there were thousands of gray wolves in the Rockies,” said Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife. “Anyone who thinks it’s legit to delist a species when there are 109 wolves in the wild, that doesn’t make sense. That’s a vendetta.”

The official FWS Mexican wolf recovery plan dates to 1982 and sets a goal of 100 wolves in the wild, with the caveat that that number wouldn’t represent full recovery of the species. The current management rule aims for 350 wolves in the wild.