A coalition of conservation groups today put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) on notice that they intend to bring a lawsuit to hold the agency accountable for failing to produce and implement a valid recovery plan for the imperiled Mexican gray wolf. With only 83 individuals and five breeding pairs in the wild, Mexican gray wolves remain at serious risk of extinction. Recovery planning and implementation, legally required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), are necessary to ensure the lobos’ survival.
“The Service has not only failed to complete a recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf but has actively scuttled recovery planning efforts by expert biologists who called for essential measures to protect this rare species,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who is representing the groups. “We intend to break this bureaucratic log jam to make sure that Mexican gray wolves receive the protections they need to survive.”
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.
The Service developed a document it labeled a “Recovery Plan” in 1982—but the Service itself admits that this 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.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s more than three-decade failure to develop a science-based recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf is a travesty,” said Michael Robinson, a longtime Mexican wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The absence of a recovery plan has hurt the Mexican wolf, leaving this unique subspecies perilously close to the brink and suffering from genetic inbreeding and consequent lower pup births and survival.”
A plan which included genetic analysis and called for three interconnected populations totaling at least 750 animals as criteria for delisting was finally drafted by a Service-appointed recovery team in 2011, but has never been finalized.
“The Service has abandoned its latest attempt to write a real recovery plan,” said retired Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator David R. Parsons. “The Service-appointed scientists on the most recent recovery team completed extensive analyses. Aspects of that science that are crucial to full recovery of Mexican wolves have been peer reviewed and published, but the Service refuses to acknowledge this new science and simply shut down the recovery planning process in 2011.”
With the abandonment of the 2011 recovery planning process, currently the only available document is the legally and scientifically deficient plan from 1982, which did not even include a goal for recovery—that task was left to a future team.
“The Service has repeatedly acknowledged that the current reintroduction program will not recover lobos, and yet it continues to stall on developing and implementing a recovery plan that will ensure the survival of these iconic and imperiled wolves,” said Maggie Howell, Executive Director of the Wolf Conservation Center.
Extensive scientific evidence, including research and analysis conducted by the Service’s own recovery team, is available to guide successful recovery planning.
“The Service knows what must be done to save the lobos,” noted 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 FWS 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.”
In addition to the missing recovery plan, the risk of a second extinction in the wild is compounded by the Service’s proposed regulatory changes that would keep wolves out of habitats north of Interstate 40, and would allow more wolves to be killed.
“The Service is on a course that contradicts the best available science, especially with this latest proposal. Lobos need a recovery plan and they need it now; they don’t need to be barred from the best habitats and they don’t need more reasons to be shot,” concluded Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife Director of Southwest Programs.
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 1980, hunting and trapping 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 pick up 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.