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Wolf recovery planning keeps hitting roadblocks

It’s a strange moment when opposing sides of a highly polarized issue start calling for the same thing. That’s happening in the debate over Mexican gray wolves.

Both wolf advocates and those who oppose reintroduction of the endangered lobo want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt a recovery plan that would serve as a road map for the wolf’s survival and eventual removal from the endangered species list.

It’s been 33 years since the original recovery plan was written in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president, the World Wide Web didn’t exist and Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was climbing the charts.

The original plan was supposed to endure just two years.

Since then, the service has convened recovery teams on three separate occasions: in the early 1990s, early 2000s and again in 2011. The first and last teams produced draft plans in 1995 and 2012 that set population targets for wild-roaming wolves.

All three efforts fell apart or were discontinued by Fish and Wildlife. Why did the agency never finish the task?

The most recent effort offers a clue.

I reviewed a 149-page document written by the recovery team in 2012, an unfinished plan watermarked “DRAFT.”

The team included 34 scientists, wolf advocates, program critics and representatives of federal, state and local governments. Academia, cattle growers’ associations, wildlife groups, county associations, tribal liaisons, game departments – everyone was at the table.

Everyone was at the table but not everyone was doing the writing.

The Endangered Species Act requires Fish and Wildlife to use the “best available commercial and scientific information” in developing a recovery plan, and the scientists on the team – hailing from the University of Montana, Michigan Technological University, Mexico’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, the Department of the Interior, Arizona Game and Fish and Turner Endangered Species Fund – came up with the recovery targets.

The team recommended removing the Mexican gray wolf from the endangered species list when:

⋄  At least three separate wild populations of Mexican gray wolves – numbering at least 750 animals in total – had survived for two successive generations, or about eight years.

⋄  The geographically separate populations showed interconnectivity, or migration between them.

⋄  The overall population trend was stable or increasing.

A majority of the members hadn’t seen the draft when it was leaked to one of the delegations, said Howard Hutchinson, executive director of the Coalition of Arizona and New Mexico Counties, who sat on the recovery team.

“All hell broke loose when someone shared a copy of the draft,” he said. “When that occurred, there was a breach in the internal dialogue and the Fish and Wildlife Service basically put the skids on.”

Sherry Barrett, the agency’s Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator, contends the latest recovery plan effort was put on hold to redirect staff to write the current management rule – a process forced by litigation brought by environmental groups.

But she also told me that the 2012 document “was released to the public by somebody prematurely. It had never been reviewed by the regional director. It was a very preliminary draft.”

The goal of 750 wolves in the wild is more than double the number targeted by the current management rule, which sets a goal of 325 wild lobos – more wolves than many opponents can stomach and fewer wolves than advocates say are necessary to improve the fragile genetics of the wild population. The 1982 plan had targeted 100 wolves in the wild but its authors acknowledged that wasn’t a recovery goal, just a high bar to set at a time when just seven wolves were being bred to keep the species from extinction.

The new management rule, implemented in February, widened the wolf habitat in New Mexico from a southwest corner to the whole southern swath between Interstate 40 and the Mexican border, from California to Texas – recognizing that not all of that encompasses suitable wolf habitat.

While both sides are clamoring for a new recovery plan – and suing Fish and Wildlife to get one – it’s unlikely that any plan would equally satisfy advocates of the program and those who oppose it, if the 2012 plan is anything to go by.

Barrett noted that the agency’s goal isn’t to appease all parties.

“In the end, what we want is a scientifically valid recovery plan that shows the point in which the wolf no longer needs protection under the Endangered Species Act,” she said.

A coalition of environmental groups and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have both asked the courts to force the service to write a new plan.

New Mexico Game and Fish recently sent the service a 60-day notice of intent to sue Sept. 1, the service told me. Last week, the New Mexico agency said it was “evaluating its options” after the federal agency said it would go ahead with wolf releases in New Mexico even after the Game Commission denied the agency permits to do so – stating that it was doing so because of the lack of a recovery plan.

Barrett says Fish and Wildlife is reconvening some of the members of the team that drafted the unfinished 2012 plan. They’ll meet in December, she said, and the new target for a final plan is late 2017.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at Go to to submit a letter to the editor.