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State Game and Fish Dept. rejects federal request to release wolf pups

SANTA FE – The state Department of Game and Fish has turned down requests from the federal government to release Mexican wolf pups and an adult pair onto U.S. Forest Service land in New Mexico this year.

That followed the state Game Commission’s rejection of permit renewals for Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch wolf-holding facility in Sierra County, considered key to the federal program.

Both denials are being appealed to the commission and are on the agenda for its Aug. 27 meeting.

They’re the latest bumps in the road to Mexican wolf recovery, which has gotten rockier under the administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it’s the first time New Mexico has rejected the agency’s annual operational permit request.

“Our desire is to work with the state as we move forward with wolf recovery. … The denial of this permit request will adversely affect our ability to recover the Mexican Wolf,” the federal agency said in a statement.

Critics say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t need state permission to carry out its mandate for wolf recovery and should just forge ahead.

But spokesman Jeff Humphrey in Phoenix said Friday that the agency “always prefers to work with our state partners.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service asked the state for permits to import and release up to 10 wolf pups for a cross-fostering program. Pups up to 10 days old that were bred in captivity in other states would be inserted into active dens in the Gila National Forest, then raised in the wild by the surrogate parents.

Recovery advocates say it’s critical to the success of the program that the genetics of the wolf population – bred from just seven wolves – be broadened.

The federal agency also asked for a permit for the release of two wolves and their offspring into the Gila. While the plan was to release them on national forest lands in Arizona, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it wanted New Mexico’s approval in case the plan had to be changed.

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Alexandra Sandoval rejected both requests last month, citing “the lack of a federal species management plan, i.e., recovery plan.”

The official Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery plan dates to 1982 and hasn’t been updated, a sore point with advocates of the program as well as its critics.

But the federal agency said in its June 22 appeal that Sandoval’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” There’s nothing in law or regulation that requires the service to revise a recovery plan in order for the director to issue a permit, it said.

“There is no rational basis for the director’s decision,” it said in its appeal.

Turner’s Ladder Ranch – from which wolves were removed late last year – has been permitted by the department for the past 17 years to hold, in large pens, wolves that were slated for release by the federal government or had been removed from the wild.

The Game Commission, which is appointed by the governor, denied a permit renewal in May.

Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said in addition to that, the fund is appealing the department’s rejection in June of its request to transfer six captive wolves from the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility to the Ladder Ranch so that routine maintenance could be done at Sevilleta. The request was made under its current permit, which Phillips said runs through 2016.

The department objected to the wolf management practices at the Ladder Ranch, saying they potentially predisposed the animals to nuisance behavior when they were released into the wild.

“We think they have drawn an erroneous conclusion about the operations of the Ladder Ranch and ask the commission to reverse the (department) director,” Phillips told the Journal .