Groups file suit challenging Mexican wolf recovery plan

Critics say current plan doomed to fail, ignores best available science

Endangered Mexican wolves roam wilderness areas near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Photo/Creative Commons

Endangered Mexican wolves roam wilderness areas near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

TUCSON, Ariz. — A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit Jan. 30 challenging what they call a deeply flawed recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf, whose numbers have reached about 113 in the wild. 

The lawsuit challenges the plan on the grounds that it disregards the best available science in setting inadequate population goals, cuts off wolf access to vital recovery habitat and fails to respond to mounting genetic threats to the species.

“Mexican wolves urgently need more room to roam, protection from killing, and more releases of wolves into the wild to improve genetic diversity, but the Mexican wolf recovery plan provides none of these things,” said Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, who is representing the wolf advocates. “The wolves will face an ongoing threat to their survival unless major changes are made.”

The Mexican gray wolf has been considered critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act since the mid-20th century, primarily because of human intervention to prevent livestock losses. Seven wolves were captured and placed into a captive breeding program, which today accounts for the entire population now living in the wild.

As the result of a reintroduction program, the entire population of wild Mexican wolves is currently divided between the Blue Range area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico and central Mexico, where about 70 wolves have been released in conjunction with the U.S. recovery program. Conservationists and some scientists argue, however, the reintroduced population suffers from high mortality due to illegal killing and compromised genetic diversity.

In 2014, Earthjustice — on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, retired Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator David R. Parsons, the Endangered Wolf Center and the Wolf Conservation Center — filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for failing to develop a recovery plan. The plan in use was a temporary plan developed in 1982. 

As a result of that lawsuit, FWS considered input from federal, state and local stakeholders to develop the plan now being implemented. The Trump administration issued the long-awaited recovery plan in November 2017. 

According to the lawsuit plaintiffs, the plan ignored comments submitted by tens of thousands of people — including leading wolf scientists — who challenged the quality of the science used and asked for stronger protections and more aggressive recovery efforts.

“Mexican wolves are vital to restoring natural balance in the Southwest, but they need a strong, science-based recovery plan to address urgent threats,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re gravely concerned that Trump’s plan would cut wolves off from habitats in the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies and remove protections while they’re still imperiled.”

A 2012 study by FWS indicated full Mexican wolf recovery would require at least three connected populations totaling approximately 750 individuals; a carefully managed reintroduction effort that prioritizes improving the genetic health of the animals; and establishment of at least two additional population centers in the southern Rockies and the Grand Canyon region.

Conservationists say the new plan disregarded that scientific evidence by failing to consider additional recovery areas in the United States, instead shifting much of the proposed recovery effort to Mexico, where adequate wolf habitat is not available. The groups also argue the plan calls for inadequate wolf numbers and fails to provide a sufficient reintroduction program to address genetic threats.

“The final recovery plan leaves too much to chance and will likely result in relisting the Mexican wolf again sometime in the future,” said Bryan Bird, Southwest director for Defenders of Wildlife. “This is a political plan, not a recovery plan that meets the standards of the Endangered Species Act.”

David Parsons, former Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for FWS, said the plan is fatally flawed, and excludes high-value habitats suitable wolf recovery.

“It is deeply disappointing to have waited 35 years for a new plan flawed in so many ways,” Parsons said. “The content of the plan was dictated primarily by state wildlife agencies known to be antithetical to meaningful recovery of Mexican wolves, and reliance on a foreign country, where the U.S. government has no authority, to achieve full recovery is fraught with risk for the long-term survival of our southwestern lobos.”

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