Conservation Groups Sue to Protect Lobos and Other Species
SANTA FE, NM – In the midst of New Mexico’s Wolf Awareness Week, Forest Guardians and Sinapu filed suit in federal district court today in order to overturn all decisions in which the Forest Service allowed livestock grazing on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico without public participation or consideration of impacts to endangered species. The Gila, a rich, biodiverse area measuring 3.3 million acres, supports a host of wildlife and protected species, and is ground zero for the Mexican gray wolf. In their lawsuit, the groups say that by overlooking conflicts between wolf recovery and livestock ranching on public lands, the Forest Service has not only broken federal law, but continues to contribute to the lobo’s demise.
A reintroduction program for the Mexican wolf began in 1998, with the goal that, by the end of 2006, the wild wolf population would number 102 animals, with 18 breeding pairs. Largely due to conflicts with livestock, the wild population of Mexican wolves numbered less than 60 individuals, with just 7 breeding pairs in December 2006. Continuing wolf removals in 2007 have further depressed these numbers, leaving the wild wolf population far short of the program’s goal.
Many poor management practices have hindered success of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. Among them is the Forest Service’s practice of issuing 10-year term grazing permits without environmental analysis or public input. Normally required by federal law to examine and subject to public scrutiny how grazing is likely to impact protected species, the Forest Service has been relying on a federal loophole to issue grazing permits while avoiding an examination of impacts to species. This loophole, created in 2005 by a congressional appropriations rider, allows the agency to “categorically exclude” from environmental analysis a small number of grazing management decisions in areas where “extraordinary circumstances” like threatened and endangered species or critical habitat are not a factor.
Over the past thirteen months, the Forest Service has used categorical exclusions (“CEs”) to authorize grazing on more than a quarter million acres of the Gila National Forest until at least 2016- defacto classifying a vital portion of the Mexican wolf recovery area as “un-extraordinary.” To add insult to injury, the agency has denied the public’s right to appeal any of these CE decisions.
Calling the Forest Service’s actions “irresponsible and undemocratic,” Melissa Hailey, Forest Guardians’ Grazing Reform Program Director and lead attorney on the case, says the groups aim to stop all grazing on the Gila until the Forest Service complies with federal law, and to have the Gila National Forest declared a no CE zone. The entire Forest falls within the Mexican wolf recovery zone, where the groups say CEs must not be allowed.
“We aim to hold the Forest Service accountable to the public, most of which supports wolf protection,” Hailey says. “The law is clear that the Forest Service cannot issue CEs in areas where grazing can harm lobos and other protected species, and the entire Gila is therefore off limits to this closed door approach to public lands management.”
Rob Edward, Sinapu’s Carnivore Restoration Program Director, agrees that environmental analysis is key to responsible management in wolf recovery areas. “Mexican wolves are fundamental to the health of what remains wild in the American Southwest,” said Edward. “We must examine how land management impacts the lobos.”
Since the inception of the Mexican wolf recovery program in 1998, federal managers have permanently removed 56 lobos from the wild for conflicting with cattle on Forest Service grazing allotments. The agency decisions challenged by the groups’ suit include authorizations of grazing on allotments where such conflicts have occurred, where wolves now roam, and where areas of critical habitat have been designated for other species like the Mexican spotted owl.
“Research shows that when you protect the wolf, you protect the whole system,” says Hailey. “The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, has experienced tremendous ecological benefit from the return of the wolf. The Gila National Forest could be the Yellowstone of the South, and the public deserves a voice in land management actions that affect the lobo and the rich, diverse ecosystems in the Gila.”
Forest Guardians is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization dedicated to preserving the wildlands and wildlife of the American West. Sinapu is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization dedicated to restoring the ecological balance of the American West through the reintroduction and recovery of large carnivores. Together, these groups also recently filed a lawsuit against the Catron County Commission, seeking to invalidate as unconstitutional an anti-wolf ordinance, which purportedly authorizes the county to kill wolves in ways, and for reasons, strictly prohibited by the Endangered Species Act.
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FOR RELEASE: October 17, 2007
CONTACTS: Melissa Hailey, Esq., Forest Guardians Grazing Reform Program Director (505) 988-9126 x1159 (office), (505) 699-2045 (cell); and Rob Edward, Sinapu Carnivore Restoration Program Director (303) 447-8655 x2# (office)