By Jöshua Barnett - Flickr: Mexican Gray Wolf, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14492192
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., reintroduced legislation on Feb. 14 to update the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan Act, which requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with a scientifically valid and state-supported plan to manage the wolf population.
The bill would require Fish and Wildlife to work with states, counties and local stakeholders to sustain wild wolf numbers without hurting livestock, wild game or recreation.
Specifically, it would require an updated recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.
The plan would contain automatic triggers to ensure appropriate action is taken. If the federal agency doesn’t comply with the plan, state wildlife authorities would be given power to assume management of the gray wolf in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.
Once the minimum wolf population is attained, the bill would mandate delisting and return management of the Mexican gray wolf to the states.
“The federal government’s outdated management of Mexican gray wolf populations is harming ranchers and our state’s rural communities,” Flake said in a statement from Washington.
The population objective for Arizona is an important component of Mexican wolf recovery, but full recovery must incorporate Mexico as well, given that 90 percent of the historical habitat for Mexican wolves is south of the border.
“This bill will ease the burdens on rural Arizonans by enhancing local stakeholder participation and state involvement in the recovery process,” Flake said.
Reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf was initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998. They live in the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area defined as a geographic area of Arizona and New Mexico from Interstate 40 south to the Mexican border. They’re mostly found in Gila, Graham, Greenlee and Navajo counties in Arizona.
At the end of 2015, at least 97 wolves were living in the recovery area, down 12 percent from 110 the previous year. Fourteen of the 21 wolf packs in the area were in dens, and pups were seen in 12 of the packs.
The wolves are designated as a “nonessential experimental population” that allows for greater management flexibility to address wolf conflict situations such as livestock attacks and public nuisances, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Several agencies are collaborating on a framework based on sound science that allows for long-term reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.
Reintroducing a predator such as the Mexican gray wolf is a highly complex and often controversial subject. It’s important to understand the role the wolves play in the ecosystem, including biological, social and economic consequences.
In 2015, the state of Arizona and Office of Arizona Attorney General intervened in a lawsuit brought by several groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that challenges management of the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.
Arizona Game and Fish Department took the action to defend the state’s interests with respect to the revised rule for Mexican wolves.
A lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians and others alleged that U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s cooperation with Arizona Game and Fish violated federal law.
The Wildlife Service worked extensively with Arizona Game and Fish, as required by the Endangered Species Act, to develop the revised rule.
“The groups that filed the suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this aspect of the reintroduction project lack an on-the-ground perspective of what changes will have the highest likelihood of success for Mexican wolves,” said Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The goal of the agencies is to balance the needs and interests of the Mexican wolf reintroduction project, local stakeholders and all other wildlife species held in trust by the department.
One criticism of the new rule concerns expansion of the area to be occupied by Mexican wolves. In recommending the expansion by more than eight times its previous size, Arizona Game and Fish used extensive biological studies to guide its recommendation for westward expansion of wolves in Arizona.
Critics also disagree with the population objective defined in the new rule, although it is more than triple the population goal defined in the current Mexican wolf management plan.