GILA NATIONAL FOREST – No Mexican gray wolves have been removed from the wild for preying on livestock in four years, but the number of lobos roaming forests in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico has remained essentially flat during that time, hovering at about 50.
Now the wolf recovery program’s chance for success faces a new challenge – the Arizona Game and Fish Commission’s decision Dec. 2 to withhold support for any new releases of wolves into the wild until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes several major planning efforts.
Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the recovery effort, is not expected to complete those projects for three or four years. The work includes an update of a nearly 30-year-old recovery plan, far-reaching environmental studies and potential revisions to the project’s management rules.
The federal agency is already whipsawed by ranchers upset that the nearly exterminated predators sometimes attack livestock, and environmentalists, who say the agency has not done enough to ensure the lobos flourish. The population was projected to reach 100 by 2006, but after hitting a high of 59 that year, lobo numbers have fluctuated between 42 and 52 since then. Fish and Wildlife will release the latest census early in 2012.
If the agency releases more wolves over the objections of the Arizona commission, it risks being accused of running roughshod over rural opponents of the recovery effort.
“It would be a poor decision,” said Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association. “Because stakeholders, communities, counties will push back as hard as they can.”
But honoring the commission’s position would set back the recovery effort, said Eva Sargent of Tucson-based Defenders of Wildlife. “The most important thing they can be doing is releasing more wolves. That’s why this is so troubling.”
Rules established for the program before Fish and Wildlife first introduced wolves in 1998 say new releases of lobos can occur only in the “primary recovery zone,” an area in Greenlee County, Ariz., that makes up about one-quarter of the 4.4-million-acre recovery area. The remaining 75 percent of contiguous land, known as the “secondary recovery zone,” is within the Gila National Forest and the cattle-free, 700,000-acre Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. The secondary zone is restricted to “translocated” wolves, those previously freed but later recaptured, mainly for wandering outside the recovery zone. The agency has translocated 16 wolves since the start of 2008.
Increasing the genetic diversity of wolves in the wild, now over-represented by one of three lineages, would counteract inbreeding, which is blamed for small wolf litter sizes and high mortality rates among pups.
The fastest way to increase genetic diversity is by releasing wolves from under-represented lineages, said Dave Parsons, biologist with the Albuquerque-based Rewilding Institute and a former wolf recovery director.
A decade ago, a team of wolf experts urged Fish and Wildlife to “immediately modify” the project’s rules to allow the first-time release of wolves into New Mexico, which includes the Gila Wilderness where grazing is prohibited.
A 2010 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar from U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and 11 other congressmen said the federal agency’s failure to adopt that recommendation and to focus more on increasing genetic diversity in packs had put the viability of the Mexican wolf population in jeopardy. Heinrich’s letter also called for prompt release of nearly two dozen wolves, including nine captured in the wild as pups.
Critics of the recovery effort, such as livestock groups in New Mexico and Arizona, supported a House bill introduced in May and co-sponsored by Republican New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce, that would remove Endangered Species Act protections for the Mexican gray wolf when the population in the two states reached 100.
Largely due to environmental lawsuits, the service made several key changes that Arizona officials blame for souring the relationship with ranchers and others. The agency in 2009 ended a policy of killing or removing a wolf that had killed three or more livestock in a one-year period, and it stopped deferring decision-making to a committee that included game and fish departments from New Mexico and Arizona.
The federal agency, meanwhile, has not made any new releases since the fall of 2008. Officials said in the past, the higher number of wolf removals were accompanied by more releases and translocations.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Charna Lofton said the agency does not want to upset any of its partners, but new wolf releases are needed.
Southwest regional director Benjamin Tuggle, “does not want to strain” the agency’s relationship with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Lofton said, “but he has a responsibility” to make the recovery program succeed.
“We recognize that the (Arizona) Commission has a different view from ours with respect to the release of wolves,” Lofton said. “But given the low number of wolves in the wild, we believe it’s necessary for wolf recovery. … We do need to get more wolves on the ground, that’s the bottom line.”
Tuggle’s own assessment of the recovery project was contained in a September memo in which he declined to approve the removal of two Middle Fork pack wolves suspected of preying on three cows.
“I remain concerned about the overall status of the wolf population. … Largely due to natural and unlawful mortalities in combination with legal removal actions in recent years, the Mexican gray wolf … population has not shown significant increases toward overall population goals,” Tuggle wrote.
Jack Husted, a member of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission from Springerville near the New Mexico border, said no more “novice” wolves should be released until the federal agency completes rules that can clarify issues, such as population goals and the circumstances when wolves will be removed for repeated cattle kills.
According to a news release, the Arizona commission expressed its continuing support for the recovery effort, unlike the New Mexico game commission which withdrew from the project altogether.