WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee reintroduced the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan Act.
The bill would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to collaborate with states, county governments, and local stakeholders to sustain viable wild wolf populations without adversely impacting livestock, wild game or recreation.
Specifically, this legislation would require the USFWS to draft an updated recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico. The plan would need to contain automatic triggers to ensure appropriate action is taken.
If the agency’s director does not comply with this new recovery plan, state wildlife authorities would be empowered to supplement or assume management of the Mexican gray wolf in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. Upon attainment of the minimum wolf population target, the bill would mandate automatic delisting, returning management of the Mexican gray wolf to the states.
Earlier this month, the Mexican wolf Interagency Field Team (IFT) completed its annual year-end population survey, documenting a minimum of 113 Mexican wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico at the end of 2016, compared with a minimum of 97 wild wolves in 2015.
“We are encouraged by these numbers, but these 2016 results demonstrate we are still not out of the woods with this experimental population and its anticipated contribution to Mexican wolf recovery,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle. “Our goal is to achieve an average annual growth rate of 10 percent in the Mexican wolf population.
Tuggle said although there was a one-year population decline in 2015, partly because of a high level of mortality and a lower pup survival rate, there are now more Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona.
“The Service and our partners remain focused and committed to making this experimental population genetically healthy and robust so that it can contribute to recovery of the Mexican wolf in the future,” he said. “We all understand the challenges we face as we try to increase the wild population of this endangered species.”
In the spring of 2016, the IFT successfully fostered six genetically diverse pups from the captive breeding program into similarly aged litters of established packs in the wild. Cross-fostering was first implemented in 2014 when a male and female pup were placed in the Dark Canyon pack’s den in New Mexico. Last summer, the IFT observed that cross-fostered male disperse from his pack and is traveling with a female wolf. The IFT also confirmed the cross-fostered female is now the breeding female in the Leopold pack.
“The population is showing an increase in wild-born wolves and we expect the growth rates observed this year to continue into the future,” said Jim deVos, assistant director of Wildlife Management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “The success of this program is due to our on-the-ground partnerships. We have every reason to believe that our efforts at reintroduction will continue to be successful.”
The results of the survey reflect the end-of-year minimum experimental population for 2016. Results come from population data collected by the IFT on the ground from November and December of 2016, as well as from an aerial survey conducted in January and February 2017. This number is considered a minimum number of Mexican wolves known to exist in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico; other Mexican wolves may be present.
The aerial survey was conducted by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter. Biologists used radio telemetry and actual sightings of wolves to help determine the count.
The results from the aerial survey, coupled with the ground survey conducted by the IFT, confirmed:
There are a total of 21 packs, with a minimum of 50 wolves in New Mexico and 63 wolves in Arizona.
The 2016 minimum population count includes 50 wild-born pups that survived through the end of the year compared to 23 pups surviving in 2015.
Six wolf pups were cross-fostered in 2016. Three are known to be alive, one of which is radio collared.
There were 13 documented Mexican wolf deaths in 2016. Two deaths occurred during last year’s count and 11 are under investigation by the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in an effort to determine the cause.
The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. Once common throughout portions of the southwestern United States and Mexico, it was all but eliminated from the wild by the 1970s. In 1977, the Service initiated efforts to conserve the species by developing a bi-national captive breeding program with seven Mexican wolves. In 1998, Mexican wolves were released to the wild for the first time in Arizona and New Mexico within the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area.
The growing wild population is a concern for ranchers, however, because of several livestock deaths attributed to the animals. The state of Arizona set up a fund in December 2016 to reimburse livestock owners who demonstrated a financial loss because of wolf activity.
“The federal government’s outdated management of Mexican gray wolf populations is harming ranchers and our state’s rural communities,” Flake said. “This bill will ease the burdens on rural Arizonans by enhancing local stakeholder participation and state involvement in the recovery process.”
Flake, along with Sen. John McCain and Rep. Paul Gosar, took up this issue in 2013, calling on then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to hold a hearing in Arizona. In 2016, he introduced an amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act that, upon passing, would immediately delist the Mexican gray wolf. Later that same year, Flake, McCain, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Chris Steward (R-UT) and Scott Tipton (R-CO) sent another letter to Jewell asking for consideration of a binational approach to managing the species with Mexico. In April 2016, the state reached a settlement with USFWS to establish a new recovery plan by November of the following year.