A U.S. appeals court has lifted an injunction that temporarily prevented the federal government from releasing endangered Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico, but the state says the underlying case “will continue to move forward.”
Advocates said the ruling means the federal government is again free to release endangered Mexican gray wolves into the wild in the recovery area – in New Mexico, that means between Interstate 40 and the U.S.-Mexico border – despite the state’s opposition.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Tucson on Tuesday vacated a preliminary injunction sought by New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish in district court last year. The injunction was sought as part of a broader claim by the state against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s wolf program.
“While we’re disappointed in the court’s ruling, the case will continue to move forward,” said Lance Cherry, spokesman for Game and Fish, in an emailed statement. “We’ll continue to do all we can to show how unpermitted, experimental release of Mexican wolves by the federal government will be harmful to New Mexicans.”
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey said, “At present, we and our solicitors are reviewing the ruling. Until we’ve reviewed that ruling, we’re not making any plans on what to do with wolves immediately.”
The appeals court said in its decision that Game and Fish “failed to present sufficient evidence to support a finding that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a preliminary injunction.”
In 2015, citing an insufficient management plan, Game and Fish denied the service permits it requested to release wolves bred in captivity into the wild.
Fish and Wildlife claimed authority to pursue wolf recovery under the Endangered Species Act and placed two wolf pups in a den in the Gila National Forest in early 2016 without a state permit.
Game and Fish subsequently took the service to federal district court and won the preliminary injunction.
The appeals court decision essentially gives Fish and Wildlife a green light to move forward with its wolf recovery program in New Mexico, according to advocates – even as additional litigation plods ahead.
“The ruling is noteworthy in pointing out that the Martinez administration was unable to articulate any harms from the wolves,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City. “The decision makes clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to do what’s needed to save the Mexican gray wolf and other endangered species from extinction.”
The program has faced stiff opposition from southwestern New Mexico ranchers and the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. Wolves are known to prey on cattle, and the return of an apex predator to ranch and forest lands in Grant and Catron counties has caused alarm.
“The Endangered Species Act gives them carte blanche to run over the top of anybody anytime, anywhere,” said Gila Livestock Growers Association President Laura Schneberger, about Fish and Wildlife. “It would be nice to see the state go ahead and look it over again, see if they can appeal it again or go at it from a different angle.”
The service counted at least 113 Mexican wolves in the recovery zone in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico in early 2017. That was up from 97 wolves in the wild the prior year.
In New Mexico, most of the wolves roam the Gila National Forest.