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Feds, conservationists, states reach wolf deal

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reached a tentative settlement with wolf advocacy groups and Western states that would commit the agency to developing a Mexican gray wolf recovery plan by 2017, but New Mexico declined to join the agreement.

The settlement announced Tuesday would force the Fish and Wildlife department to complete a plan it has failed to finish on three separate occasions since the original recovery plan was adopted in 1982. The plan is supposed to guide management of the endangered Mexican wolf, including population targets for the survivability of the species.

U.S. Judge Jennifer Zipps in the District of Arizona must approve the settlement.

A Mexican gray wolf is held in a pen on the Ladder Ranch in New Mexico. Under an agreement announced Wednesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife would finish a recovery plan next year. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

A Mexican gray wolf is held in a pen on the Ladder Ranch in New Mexico. Under an agreement announced Wednesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife would finish a recovery plan next year. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

“We aim to support natural, wild wolf population growth and improve population genetics, eventually leading to species recovery and state management of the species,” Fish and Wildlife said in a statement.

The settlement resolves a November 2014 lawsuit by environmental groups including Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others. It also resolves a June 2015 lawsuit by the state of Arizona in which Utah, Colorado and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department ultimately joined.

The New Mexico Game and Fish Department, which has been pressing Fish and Wildlife to come up with a recovery plan, declined to join the agreement “due to the overly aggressive time frame it specifies,” spokesman Lance Cherry said in a statement.

“The Department does not feel the proposed timeline offers an adequate opportunity to formulate a comprehensive recovery plan, as there is a need for a more thorough review of the current available science and analysis of historic Mexican wolf range,” he said.

Court documents indicate the department has vowed to voluntarily drop its claims once the settlement is approved.

The environmental groups and the state governments do not necessarily want the same things out of a recovery plan. Wolf advocates want to see hundreds of free-roaming wolves; the administrations of the Four Corners states have recently wanted to limit wolf releases to the wild.

New Mexico has been at odds with Fish and Wildlife for more than a year over the Mexican wolf recovery program. Federally mandated wolf habitat in New Mexico lies south of Interstate 40 and stretches to the Mexican border but in practice wolf packs have been confined largely to the Gila National Forest for years.

There were 97 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona at last count in early 2016, according to Fish and Wildlife. The population declined from 110 wolves the prior year because of adult deaths and a steep drop in the pup survival rate.

A 2012 draft recovery plan that was leaked to the public before it was abandoned set a population target of 750 wolves across three distinct populations.

Fish and Wildlife restarted its wolf recovery planning process late last year and has been meeting with representatives of the Four Corners states to develop a framework for going forward. That process has so far not included outside stakeholders as it has in the past, according to Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife senior Southwest representative based in Tucson.

“They are sitting down with the states to write a new recovery plan,” she said. “It’s hard to know what’s happening because those are closed-door meetings. When they have shut down three attempts and they are on their fourth attempt, it doesn’t give me a lot of faith unless there is a hard deadline.”

Fish and Wildlife said it will submit reports to the court every six months updating the status of recovery planning.

The agency recently said it planned to release a wolf pack in New Mexico this year and may also place young wolf pups into existing packs in the state – violating the state Game Commission’s decision last year to deny it permits to release wolves.

Game and Fish put the federal agency on notice last week that it intends to sue if the agency proceeds with its release plans.