Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Left to Politics Rather Than Science

A new federal rule to protect endangered Mexican gray wolves contains flawed provisions that may lead to the wolves’ demise.

A Mexican gray wolf.
A Mexican gray wolf. (Nagel Photography / Shutterstock)

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For three decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed politics to trump science in its efforts to recover the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico. As a result, the agency’s track record on restoring this iconic animal to the wild under the Endangered Species Act has been marred by years of delay and false starts, leaving this subspecies on the brink of collapse. Despite these challenges, conservationists vow to keep fighting on the wolves’ behalf and Earthjustice is now leading their efforts.

Since 1982, the Fish and Wildlife Service has summoned three different scientific teams to prepare a mandatory recovery plan to restore the Mexican gray wolf, which was exterminated from the wild by the 1980s. In the most recent instance, expert scientists were consulted and a draft plan was completed calling for expanded recovery efforts, but the agency halted the project and never published a recovery plan in the face of local political opposition.

Although Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced into the wild in 1998, restoration efforts have faltered without a plan to provide a comprehensive blueprint for wolf recovery. As of the agency’s last official count in 2013, only an estimated 83 wolves and five breeding pairs remained in the wild. In a lawsuit filed last November, Earthjustice represented a coalition of conservation groups aiming to hold the agency responsible for its failure to produce a scientifically based, legally compliant plan for Mexican gray wolf recovery.

Despite the absence of a recovery plan to guide its efforts, on January 12 the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a new rule to govern management of the reintroduced population. Though the agency’s new rule offers some useful reforms, implementing management strategies without the science-based population and habitat requirements that a recovery plan would provide puts the cart before the horse. The rule also includes harmful ‘poison-pill’ provisions that will make it impossible to recover this extremely rare and embattled species.

For example, while the rule allows for wolf releases and dispersal in an expanded area, it outweighs the benefit of that measure by imposing an arbitrary and insufficient new cap on the wolf population and barring the reintroduced wolves from moving north into critically needed recovery habitats in the Grand Canyon and northern New Mexico. The rule also gives the agency broader authority to issue permits to individuals and government agents to kill wolves despite the fact that past killings and removals have excessively reduced wolf numbers. Based on available evidence, it appears that the agency adopted these harmful terms at the behest of officials from the Arizona Game and Fish department, which seeks to minimize the wolf population to avoid the impacts of natural predation on elk herds prized by local hunters.

Earthjustice has responded to the agency’s new rule by mounting a new legal challenge, this time targeting the portions of the new rule that would subvert needed measures for Mexican gray wolf recovery. The new lawsuit charges that the agency developed a new rule to guide Mexican gray wolf management prior to completing a required recovery plan that would provide scientific guidance for such management measures. In the absence of scientific recovery guidance, the agency allowed local politics to guide critical management measures for one of the most endangered mammals in North America. That approach led to adoption of measures that will actively frustrate Mexican gray wolf recovery. In the end, we seek to require the agency to adopt an approach to Mexican gray wolf recovery that honors the best available scientific information so that the “lobo” of southwestern lore can survive and flourish as a living, breathing part of our nation’s natural heritage.

Heidi McIntosh is managing attorney of the Rocky Mountain regional office in Denver, Colorado. She has more than three decades of environmental litigation experience.

The Biodiversity Defense Program fights to reshape our relationship to lands, water, and wildlife everywhere by confronting the major drivers of the decline in nature, including habitat destruction and over-exploitation of wildlife.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.