GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — A long-awaited update to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan has been released, drawing criticism from activist groups that say the draft strips essential protections from the animal and prompting further review from Arizona Game and Fish (AZGFD).
The Mexican wolf was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1976. Initially drafted in 1982, a recovery plan created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) called for a benchmark population of 100 animals living in the wild after hunting and poaching culled the number of wild Mexican wolves to just seven. That number, however, was deemed too low to adequately measure the long-term success of the wolves’ survival.
Unlike the previous recovery plan, which was designed only to be a temporary solution, the new draft provides threshold numbers for delisting the species from the ESA: 320 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and 170 wolves in Mexico.
Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said those numbers are far fewer than the number necessary for a viable, self-sustaining population. He points to the findings of a recovery team commissioned by USFWS in 2012, which determined that 750 individual wolves spread out over three population sites were necessary for the species’ long-term survival.
Because the number of wolves that survive to breeding age and proceed to mate is low, a lack of genetic diversity has hampered the species. A report released by USFWS states most of the wolves roaming Arizona and New Mexico are “related as full siblings.” Most are descendants of the Bluestem Pack, released near Alpine, Arizona in 2002.
Rich Frederickson, an independent geneticist based in Montana who has done contract work for the Mexican wolf recovery project, said in an interview that the current state of the population was caused by wildlife management agencies. The agencies, he said, instituted a three-strikes rule from 2005 to 2007 to combat livestock predation. Wolves who were caught attacking livestock three times were removed from the wild, along with their offspring.
“There was a relatively genetically diverse population in 2005,” he said. “Then there were intensive removals, then no new releases. That’s how it got to be how it is now.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are currently 113 Mexican wolves roaming Arizona and New Mexico, including 10 breeding pairs. There are around 30-35 documented wolves in Mexico. Less genetic diversity, the Center says, leads to smaller litters and fewer pups surviving to adulthood. A stagnant gene pool can also lead to deformities or inherited health problems.
The historical range of the Mexican wolf covers Arizona and New Mexico south of the I-40 corridor, along with a southeastern Texas and a wide swath of Mexico as far south as Mexico City.
In spite of calls from environmental groups to extend this range to include the Grand Canyon area and the southern Rocky Mountains, the new draft recovery plan prevents the release of wolves north of the I-40 corridor. The USFWS-commissioned recovery team’s 2012 report also called for establishing additional wolf populations in those areas, but both Utah and Colorado, which currently do not have wolf populations, objected.
“Independent biologists have concluded that recovery of Mexican wolves in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains is essential to long-term recovery of the species,” Robinson said.
AZGFD scientists are currently reviewing the draft recovery plan. The department has spent more than $7 million since the 1980s to manage the small population in Arizona.
Jim deVos, assistant director for AZGFD, said the plan appears to address the issues of genetic viability. DeVos said the numbers presented in the draft plan are scientifically sound.
“The plan appears to be developed on the best available science by Dr. Philip S. Miller, a world-renowned population viability analysis expert,” he said. “Based on Dr. Miller’s analyses, the plan includes explicit science-based numbers of wolf releases required to maintain a genetically diverse Mexican wolf population.”
DeVos also said a large part of managing the genetic diversity of the Mexican wolf population is keeping the species inside of its historic range. Limiting the range of the species to areas south of I-40, he said, ensure proper genetic management of both the Mexican wolf and the Canadian gray wolf, which was transplanted into the Rocky Mountains and are prominent in areas north of the I-40 corridor.
“This affords agencies invested in wolf recovery a pathway toward preserving and protecting the Mexican wolf from genetic swamping that would jeopardize this uniquely smaller subspecies,” deVos said.
AZGFD has had some success bolstering the genetic diversity in the wild population in recent months. The agency has been cross-fostering wolf pups – taking pups born in captivity and placing them in dens with wild pups around the same age. If the pups survive long enough to mate and breed, it will introduce new genes into the wild population.
DeVos said the department’s scientists are carefully reviewing the plan in detail before submitting formal comments. The public comment period lasts for 60 days, closing on Aug. 29. Because of a lawsuit settlement between USFWS, AZGFD and Defenders of Wildlife, a new plan must be formally in place by November 2017.
For those interested in submitting comments on the draft recovery plan, the full plan can be reviewed at https://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/MWRP.cfm. Comments may be submitted electronically or via U.S. mail. USFWS also will hold two public meetings in Arizona to provide an opportunity for citizens to learn about the revised Mexican wolf recovery plan and to provide written comments.
The Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project is a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, White Mountain Apache Tribe, USDA Forest Service, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — Wildlife Services, and several participating counties in Arizona.
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