For the third time in recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had one of its partners abandon an agreement that was meant to bring more collaboration to the troubled effort to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest.
While it’s no secret the effort has been a point of contention among ranchers and environmentalists, one federal official says there will undoubtedly be a loss of perspective with fewer partners at the table.
“We like to have that collaboration and that kind of thought process that leads to better decisions,” said Wally Murphy, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ecological services field office in New Mexico.
The exodus started last summer with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. In late March, Grant and Sierra counties abandoned the agreement, and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture joined them this week.
Murphy called the recent developments “disheartening,” given that the wolf program is facing critical decisions this year that will affect its future direction. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on revamping the wolf recovery plan, which, among other things, will spell out what it will take to eventually get the animal off the federal endangered species list.
“We really need all of our partners in that decision-making process,” he said.
Several counties, state agencies and tribal governments in Arizona and New Mexico had signed on to a memorandum of understanding in 2010. The purpose was to provide a framework of collaboration in hopes of balancing the program’s goals of returning wolves to the wild with pressures on ranchers, their livestock and other wildlife.
Now, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and three Arizona counties — Greenlee, Navajo and Graham — are the only remaining partners, aside from federal land and wildlife management agencies.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent survey, completed in January, puts the wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona at about 58.
Captive-bred wolves were first released in Arizona in 1998 as part of the reintroduction effort. Biologists hoped to have at least 100 in the Blue Range Recovery Area after eight years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged that the effort to increase the population has been hampered by everything from illegal shootings, removals due to livestock kills and court battles over program management.
For New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, the decision to withdraw came down to staffing levels, budget limitations and the program’s lack of progress.
“If we get to the point where we get staffed up again and things start moving and input is requested and desired, then we’ll reconsider,” he said.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal