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Feds, state debate need for permit to release wolves


A Mexican gray wolf in a pen on the Ladder Ranch in New Mexico in 2002. A federal judge says he will rule within two weeks on the planned release of captive wolves in New Mexico. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

A federal judge said Thursday that he’ll issue a written ruling within two weeks on whether to grant state Game and Fish officials’ request to stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s planned release of up to 10 endangered Mexican wolves in New Mexico.

State officials also want the removal of two captive pups placed last month into a wild-wolf den.

One issue before U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson at a hearing Thursday was whether federal consultation with the state, required under the Endangered Species Act, means a state permit is required.

The feds didn’t have one when they “cross-fostered” two newborn pups bred in captivity into a wild pack with pups of similar age on federal lands in April, a move they deem essential to boosting the wolf population’s genetic diversity and ultimately to its recovery. That’s because state Game and Fish Director Alexandra Sandoval – later backed by the full commission – denied permits requested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lawsuits filed by a California law firm on behalf of New Mexico in state and federal courts contend such a permit is required.

The state, which is requesting a preliminary injunction, says management of wildlife and fish is a function of the state, and that New Mexico law bans importation of a nondomestic animal without an appropriate permit. The department claims immediate and irreparable harm without a court-ordered halt to more wolf releases, because as top-of-the-food-chain predators, wolves must be managed along with their prey – elk, deer and antelope.

Federal wildlife officials, meanwhile, say the planned releases are too minimal to cause any harm to state interests, while there is a very real threat to the Mexican wolf population, already at risk because of the lack of genetic diversity.

As a Justice Department attorney for U.S. Fish and Wildlife argued Thursday, a state permit – which the service was granted for previous wolf releases – is not required if that would prevent it from carrying out its statutory duties, in this case Mexican wolf recovery.

Since the end of 2014, the wolf population in New Mexico decreased from 110 to 97, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Paul Weiland, representing Game and Fish, told the court that the primary reason for the denial of the state permit was the lack of a comprehensive management scheme because the federal plan adopted in 1982 is no longer in place.

DOJ attorney Clifford Stevens responded, “There is a larger story to what’s happening. … The (wolf) population is just not viable with the current genetic makeup. There’s too much inbreeding. So the (Fish and Wildlife) service has to go to the captive population.”

“Mexican wolves will dwindle and go extinct without releases of captive-bred wolves to diversify the genetics,” Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement to the Journal.

“The recently released pups should be allowed to stay, and family packs should be released as well to establish a more robust population.”

Another environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, will seek to intervene in the federal lawsuit in the next week, the organization’s state outreach coordinator, Michael Dax, said after Thursday’s hearing.

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