Jan. 13–Mexican wolves will soon be able to roam a much wider area across Arizona as far north as Interstate 40, and their numbers in the wild will be allowed to reach as high as 325, the federal government announced Monday.
The new rules expand by 10 times the area where the endangered wolves can be released and by four times the area where they can live afterward. It also allows the goal for the wild population to more than triple from its current goal of 100.
But at the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced new rules that critics said will expand opportunities to kill wolves.
These provisions establish permit systems and other ways that would allow individuals and state wildlife agencies to kill wolves that kill livestock or other domestic animals, or wolves that have caused “unacceptable impacts” to elk and other wild ungulates such as deer.
Finally, the service reclassified the Mexican wolf as a separate endangered subspecies from its earlier status as a subspecies of the endangered gray wolf.
The service announced these actions as revisions to 1998 rules that triggered the initial reintroduction of Mexican wolves into Eastern Arizona. The new rules come as the result of a settlement the service reached with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity of a lawsuit seeking to bolster the wolf program.
Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said the new rules will increase wild wolves’ genetic diversity, long a concern of outside scientists and environmentalists. The provisions liberalizing rules for the killing of wolves are aimed at reducing conflicts between wolves, landowners and state agencies, Tuggle said.
Environmentalists mildly praised some new rules and panned others, saying some allow officials to diversify the struggling wolf population but others threaten to prevent wolf recovery.
Overall, the rules overwhelm some useful reforms with “poison pill” provisions that conflict with prevailing science, said Heidi McIntosh, a managing attorney for the group Earthjustice.
The Arizona Cattle Growers Association is unhappy with the changes: “It’s something that was shoved down our throat,” said Patrick Bray, the association’s executive vice president. Referring specifically to new rules allowing the killing of problem wolves, he said state, not federal, officials deserve the final say on when that can happen.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department is generally OK with the new rules, an agency official said.
Jim DeVos, deputy Game and Fish director, called them a “middle ground” compromise.
“Overall it’s a very good approach, a huge contribution for the recovery of the Mexican wolf,” he said.
During a telephone conference with reporters, Tuggle said, “I want to make clear that this effort will be the foundation on which we will construct our wolf recovery plan.”
He was referring to a long-delayed, legally required document that’s supposed to propel the wolf toward ultimate removal from the federal endangered species list.
Tuggle declined to say when the service would release a draft of that plan, but “if I would go out on a limb, I’d say that the recovery plan is in sight of being initiated.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have sued and threatened to sue the wildlife service, respectively, to force the recovery plan’s release.
“This rule in my opinion is far stronger than the previous rule, because we’ve had more opportunity to learn about how Mexican wolves behave on the landscape,” he said.
Specifically, the rules:
–Expand the area for wolf release from a small portion of the Blue Range in Eastern Arizona to an area of 12,507 square miles spanning Central Arizona to western and southwestern New Mexico. Among other forests, it includes all of the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
–Expand the area that wolves can occupy from the 7,212-square-mile Blue Range Recovery Area to three zones covering 153,853 square miles. That vast new area is bounded by I-40 on the north, the Mexican border on the south and the California and Texas borders on the west and east, respectively.
–Increase the goal for a wild wolf population from 100 to a range of 300 to 325. The number is likely to be increased when a recovery plan is written. The most recent census in 2013 pegged the wild wolf population at 83.
If the population exceeds 325, excess wolves could be taken into captivity or moved to Mexico, Tuggle said. “I would hate to say that we would exercise an option of killing them,” Tuggle said in response to a question. “They are a valuable species.”
–Clarified that officials of the federal Wildlife Services program — which can kill predators known to be damaging livestock — won’t violate the law if they kill a Mexican wolf “while conducting official duties associated with predator damage management activities” involving other species.
–Set up a complex, detailed process to allow the Arizona and New Mexico game and fish departments to remove, relocate, transfer to Mexico and legally kill wolves if it’s shown they constitute an “unacceptable impact” to deer or elk. The state agencies must provide detailed data supporting their concerns and their plans, and obtain outside peer reviews.
Environmentalist Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said the provision allows state game agencies to “virtually dictate destruction of wolves for deer and elk,” and hands key decisions about the fate of wolves to “politicians and their cronies.”
The rules as now written don’t give the service discretion over whether to grant permission if they don’t agree with the science presented by the state agencies, he said.
Game and Fish’s DeVos said as he reads the rule, the service has the option to say no.
“I’m not sure I categorize it as anything other than a reasonable step a state could use to petition the service to manage wolves,” he said. “It’s not our intent to kill wolves.
“We believe there is a carrying capacity for wolves on the landscape, and we need the ability to not only protect wolves themselves … but protect the prey base from wolves,” he said.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746.