Conservation groups have filed a lawsuit challenging a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) management rule that fails to provide for the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, one of the most endangered mammals in the United States. The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by Earthjustice in the suit, argue that FWS’s new rule fails to respond to ongoing genetic threats to Mexican gray wolves, sets an inadequate population target, and cuts wolves off from essential recovery habitat.
“The government’s new management program threatens failure for the entire Mexican gray wolf recovery effort,” said Timothy Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s biodiversity defense program. “Improving genetic diversity and establishing additional populations are critically important for the lobo’s survival. Unfortunately, this new rule falls far short of what is needed to restore the Mexican gray wolf.”
In its new management rule, FWS sets a target of 320 wolves in a single area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico and prohibits wolf access to promising but unoccupied recovery habitat in the Grand Canyon and Southern Rockies regions. Scientists have identified establishing additional Mexican gray wolf populations in those regions as essential to eventual recovery. Further, while the new rule calls for the release of enough captive wolves to improve the wild Mexican gray wolf population’s genetic diversity, it will consider the population’s genetic problems solved if these released wolves merely survive to a certain age, regardless of whether they ever breed.
“We are deeply concerned that FWS continues to disregard the recommendations and concerns of top scientists and the harmful impacts this inaction is having on recovery,” said Craig Miller, senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Mexican wolves, ranchers, and the public would all benefit from the increased coordination that comes with ‘essential’ status and by allowing wolves back into suitable habitats where there are few opportunities for conflict. Instead, the new rule prevents necessary expansion and confines a single population to an area with much unsuitable habitat and a high likelihood of conflict.”
The FWS rule challenged by the conservation groups represents FWS’s effort to revise a prior Mexican gray wolf management framework after it was successfully challenged by the same conservationists. In 2015, FWS put forth a management rule for the reintroduced Mexican gray wolf population that threatened to compound many of the issues that threaten the species’ survival. Conservation groups won their challenge to this rule in March 2018, as a federal court in Arizona found the rule violated the Endangered Species Act. In its ruling, the Court faulted the agency for ignoring the advice of key scientists upon whose work the agency purported to rely. The court directed FWS to issue a new management rule by July 1, 2022.
“Increasing genetic diversity is key to the recovery of the small Mexican gray wolf population, but the government is stalling,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Underlying the federal absence of genetic standards is a determination to keep killing wolves and avoid effective wolf releases, all on behalf of the public lands livestock industry. Our lawsuit will show how the government refused to be candid about the lethal consequences of its mismanagement.”
In addition to the management rule, conservation groups are challenging the 2017 recovery plan for Mexican gray wolves in a separate lawsuit that is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That suit argues that the plan fails to provide for “conservation and survival” of the species and does not base its delisting criteria on the best available science, as the law requires. Among other recommendations FWS ignored, leading scientists previously determined that recovery would necessitate three connected subpopulations of Mexican gray wolves in the wild, totaling at least 750 wolves. But following pressure from state officials, the recovery criteria were altered to a single population of 320 wolves, with an additional isolated population in Mexico. The new management rule mirrors this and other shortcomings of the 2017 recovery plan.
Mexican gray wolves are the most distinct lineage of wolves in the Western Hemisphere. This wolf subspecies of the American Southwest and Mexico was driven to near extinction as a result of government-sponsored killing in the mid-20th century. By the end of the killing program, just seven individuals remained in a captive breeding program. The enactment of the Endangered Species Act spurred efforts to recover the Mexican gray wolf from the looming threat of extinction and it was listed as endangered in 1976.
While FWS estimates that there were 196 Mexican gray wolves in the wild at the end of 2021, the population’s numbers remain well below recovery objectives and its genetic integrity is badly deteriorated. On average, wolves in the reintroduced population are as related to one another as full siblings.