PINOS ALTOS, N.M. The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit Dec. 14 to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement reforms to the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program that a scientific panel had urged back in June 2001.
The lawsuit will jumpstart recovery for the animal that the service itself, after having spent decades trapping and poisoning Mexican wolves in the Southwest and Mexico, identified as North America’s most endangered mammal.
In planning the 1998 reintroduction, the service projected that by the end of 2006 more than 100 wolves would roam the Gila and Apache national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. According to the 1982 Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, this would be one of two populations that together would comprise an initial step toward recovery of the Mexican wolf .
However, the population declined from 55 animals counted at the end of 2003 to 35 counted at the end of 2005. Despite an increase expected this year, the population is significantly below 100 animals.
Recovering wolves — intelligent, resilient and prolific creatures — is not rocket science. The service reintroduced northern gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995, leading to more than 1,000 wolves roaming Wyoming, Idaho and Montana today. A recovery plan for wolves in the Great Lakes states allowed a small remnant population to grow to more than 3,000 animals today. In both cases, the service allows more wolves to live and reproduce than it orders removed due to conflicts with livestock. In both cases, the service allows wolves to roam at will unless they are causing specific problems.
The Mexican wolf reintroduction has different rules. Bowing to livestock industry demands, the service bound itself to remove any wolf living outside a designated area. On Nov. 9, 2001, a lone wolf outside the boundary was chased by helicopter until he collapsed and died. In August 2004 the service trapped two wild-born wolves from the Cibola National Forest because they were on the “wrong” forest; their young, dependent pups were not found. The 2001 science panel, which comprised the service’s official three-year review of the reintroduction program and was conducted by renowned non-governmental biologists, urged allowing Mexican wolves to roam freely just like all other species the service manages are allowed.
The rules for wolf reintroduction to the northern Rocky Mountains require ranchers to clean up “attractants,” and specify withholding predator control where livestock carcasses attract wolves that then prey on stock. Mexican wolves receive no such protection.
From 1998 through 2000 the Campbell Blue Pack showed no interest in cattle and were even documented trotting right by a herd of cows and calves en route to successfully hunting elk. But after scavenging on cattle they did not kill in early 2001, they began killing cattle and were recaptured. The alpha male will never be re-released. His mate was re-released in spring 2003 with a new male. She abandoned him and traveled dozens of miles back to where she had first tasted beef. There she began hunting cattle again, and on May 27, 2003 the service shot her the first of eight wolves shot so far by the government since reintroduction began. (The service has also killed 20 Mexican wolves unintentionally, incidental to capture.)
To prevent wolves from becoming habituated to livestock, the science panel recommended requiring ranchers using public lands to remove or render inedible (by lime, for example) the carcasses of cattle and horses that die of non-wolf causes.
Livestock industry groups twice sued and lost to compel the service to trap or shoot all the Mexican wolves. They backed a 2003 state bill to accomplish the same (which failed after pro-wolf testimony by rural Gila-area citizens). But the service has met every other livestock industry demand resulting in few surviving wolves.
On July 25, 2006, the service pledged in writing not to regulate livestock carcasses, to expand but not eliminate the boundaries that constrict wolves, to allow wolf shooting in broader circumstances than presently permitted, to cap the wolf population at 125 animals and allow mass wolf killing above that number, and to impose today’s failing management protocols in new areas needed for Mexican wolves’ eventual recovery.
Our lawsuit is necessary to ensure that a bad situation is not made worse, and that the lobo will have a chance to recover and restore the balance.
By Michael J. Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity is also the author of “Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West” (University Press of Colorado, 2005).