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Lawsuit Fights 38 Years of Delay in Recovering Southwest’s Mexican Gray Wolves

Federal agency still reliant on incomplete, deficient 1982 plan for the rare wolves
A Mexican gray wolf.

The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)—the “lobo” of Southwestern lore—is the most genetically distinct lineage of wolves in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

Nagel Photography / Shutterstock
November 12, 2014
Tuscon, AZ —

A coalition of wolf conservation groups, environmental organizations and a retired federal wolf biologist sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for repeated failures over the last 38 years to develop a valid recovery plan for the imperiled Mexican gray wolf, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. With only 83 individuals and five breeding pairs in the wild at last report, Mexican gray wolves remain at serious risk of extinction. The recovery plan, a blueprint for rebuilding an endangered species’ population to sustainable levels, is necessary to ensure the lobos’ survival and is legally required under the Endangered Species Act.

“The opportunity to recover the Mexican gray wolf is slipping away due to genetic problems and inadequate management policies, but the government still hasn’t created the basic recovery blueprint that the law requires,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who is representing the groups. “We are asking a judge to order federal officials to develop a scientifically-grounded recovery plan before it is too late.”

Earthjustice is representing Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, retired Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator David R. Parsons, the Endangered Wolf Center and the Wolf Conservation Center.

“For three decades now, Fish and  Wildlife officials have been dragging their feet on completing a recovery plan simply to appease state leaders and special interest groups opposed to sharing the landscape with wolves,” said Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s shameful that the very people charged with recovering our wildlife have turned their backs on these beautiful creatures, leaving them to battle inbreeding and a host of other threats pushing them to the brink of extinction.”

The Service developed a document it labeled a “Recovery Plan” in 1982, but the agency admits the document was incomplete, intended for only short-term application, and “did not contain objective and measurable recovery criteria for delisting as required by [the Endangered Species Act].” Most importantly, the 32-year-old document did not provide the necessary science-based roadmap to move the Mexican gray wolf toward recovery. Without a recovery plan in place, the Service’s Mexican gray wolf conservation efforts have fallen short of even meeting the agency’s stopgap goals. The Service in 2010 admitted that the wild Mexican gray wolf population “is not thriving” and remains “at risk of failure.”

“In the Spring of 2012, the Service cancelled the next meeting of the recovery team,” said Eva Sargent, Southwest Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the team, “and we haven’t heard a word since. The majority of Arizonans and New Mexicans support recovery of the lobo, and they deserve more than decades of stalling on the most basic task—a scientific blueprint that moves the wolves from endangered to secure.”

Service-appointed recovery scientists drafted a plan in 2012 that called for establishing three interconnected Mexican gray wolf populations totaling at least 750 animals as criteria for delisting, but the plan has never been finalized. The abandonment of the 2012 recovery planning process leaves Mexican wolf recovery guided by the legally and scientifically deficient 1982 plan, which did not even set a population recovery goal.

A new analysis of the Service’s failed efforts to develop a recovery plan released today by the Center for Biological Diversity reveals an agency that over three decades convened three different teams of expert scientists to prepare the much-needed plan only, in each case, to pull the plug once the plans neared completion.

As detailed in the report, “Deadly Wait: How the Government’s 30-year Delay in Producing a Recovery Plan is Hurting Recovery of Mexican Gray Wolves,” documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act demonstrate the most recent effort to develop a recovery plan was quashed by the Service in 2012 at the behest of the states of Arizona, Colorado and Utah, which did not want to see Mexican wolves recovered within their borders.

“The Endangered Species Act is unequivocal in its requirement of a recovery plan based solely on the best available science regardless of politics and the level of controversy. That certain interests invited to the recovery planning table don’t respect federal law or reject the validity of the best science is no excuse for shutting down the recovery planning process and further endangering the extinction of the Mexican gray wolf” said David Parsons, former Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed today include two environmental education organizations that operate captive-breeding facilities providing Mexican gray wolves for release into the wild. Despite their efforts, Mexican gray wolf survival continues to be threatened by the lack of a recovery plan to ensure that wolf releases are sufficient to establish a viable population.

“Recovery cannot take place in captivity alone,” said Virginia Busch, Executive Director of the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Mo. “Only by developing and implementing a comprehensive and legally compliant recovery plan reflecting the best available scientific information can Fish and Wildlife Service secure the future of the Mexican wolf, and establish management sufficient to restore this irreplaceable part of our wild natural heritage to the American landscape.”

Maggie Howell, Executive Director of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, added: “The captive-breeding program that we operate aims to release wolves into their ancestral homes in the wild, but the success of our efforts requires a recovery plan that will ensure the survival of these iconic and imperiled wolves.”

BACKGROUND

The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)—the “lobo” of Southwestern lore—is the most genetically distinct lineage of wolves in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most endangered mammals in North America. By the mid-1980s, hunting, trapping, and poisoning caused the extinction of lobos in the wild, with only a handful remaining in captivity. In 1998 the wolves were reintroduced into the wild as part of a federal reintroduction program under the Endangered Species Act. Today in the U.S., there is a single wild population comprising only 83 individuals, all descendants of just seven wild founders of a captive breeding program. These wolves are threatened by illegal killings, legal removals due to conflicts with livestock, and a lack of genetic diversity.

The Service has never written or implemented a legally sufficient Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. The Service’s most recent recovery team has done extensive, rigorous work to determine what needs to be done to save the Mexican gray wolf. Recovery team scientists agree that, in order to survive, lobos require the establishment of at least three linked populations. The habitats capable of supporting the two additional populations are in the Grand Canyon ecoregion and in northern New Mexico/southern Colorado. 

In July 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposed revision of the rules governing management of Mexican gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal includes provisions that would allow for increased take—or killing—of the critically endangered animals, and proposes to recapture wolves dispersing north of Interstate 40, which would prohibit the establishment of additional populations called for by recovery planners. The proposal is not based on a legitimate recovery plan.

Contacts

Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084

Michael Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity, (575) 313-7017

Maggie Howell, Wolf Conservation Center, (914) 763-2373

Steve Parker, Endangered Wolf Center, 636-938-5900, sparker@endangeredwolfcenter.org

Courtney Sexton, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-0253