High Country News: Will endangered species status help the Mexican gray wolf? | SummitDaily.com

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High Country News: Will endangered species status help the Mexican gray wolf?

Earlier this month, one of the U.S.'s most threatened and controversial species received new protections that federal wildlife managers hope will allow the species to gain new ground in its home range of New Mexico and Arizona.

On Jan. 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mexican gray wolf, or Canis lupus baileyi, as an endangered subspecies under the Endangered Species Act. Before the new rule, Mexican grays were protected under the E.S.A. but lumped in with their larger, more northerly relative, the gray wolf, reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Today more than 1,500 grays inhabit large swaths of the northwestern U.S.

In addition to being slighter in stature than grays, Mexican gray wolves, or lobos, are far smaller in numbers. Based on the USFWS's latest survey, completed at the end of 2013, there were only 83 wolves in 14 packs along the New Mexico-Arizona border. Since reintroductions began in the late 1990s, the effort has been marred by human conflict. According to USFWS data, between 1998 and 2011, 88 Mexican gray wolves died — more than half of these deaths were attributable to illegal shootings and car collisions.

As HCN contributor John Dougherty reported in 2007, ranchers in the Gila tried to gain the upper hand by exploiting a "three strikes" law that allows federal officials to remove or kill animals deemed habitual livestock killers. Recent efforts reported on by HCN have sought creative means to alleviate the tension between wolves and ranchers, including grazing buyouts, which pay farmers to remove cattle from key wolf habitat.

Lack of genetic diversity has also proven a serious obstacle to reintroduction efforts. All of the remaining animals are descended from a group of five lobos captured in 1973 (coincidentally, the year the Endangered Species Act was passed) after the species was almost driven to extinction. Federal wildlife managers hope to increase genetic variation through selective breeding and strategic release of animals into the wild.

Under the new rule, the USFWS will seek to establish an experimental population of between 300 and 325 Mexican grays. The rules also significantly expand the boundaries of the wolves' protected range and areas where animals can be released. The former territory comprised portions of the Gila and Apache National Forests but the new rule pushes the southern boundary for the experimental population from Interstate 10 all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border. (However, the northern boundary ends at Interstate 40, so wolves that travel to the Grand Canyon and into potential habitat beyond would not be managed under the new guidelines. USFWS intends to capture and return wolves that disperse north of I-40.) "This revision of the experimental population rule provides Mexican wolves the space they need to establish a larger and more genetically diverse population — a population that can meaningfully contribute to the subspecies' recovery," said Benjamin Tuggle, the service's southwest regional director.

According to Tuggle, the rule is also accompanied by "clearer and more flexible rules to support the interests of local stakeholders" — namely, a provision that allows individuals to get permits allowing them to kill wolves that attack livestock or domestic dogs.

This "take" provision is one of several aspects of the law that has drawn criticism from environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife. The same groups have also pointed out that the law is unusual in that it defines a maximum rather than minimum population threshold. "Allowing Mexican gray wolves to disperse over a broader area is a positive, but that positive is negated by an unfounded population cap and increased authorized killing," said Eva Sargent, a spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife in a press release.

The new protections for Mexican grays come amid uncertain times for gray wolves. In 2013, the USFWS recommended delisting the northern gray wolf entirely while adding the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered subspecies, a proposal that was met with fierce outcry from the public.

Four years ago, several states in the Great Lakes region delisted gray wolves and implemented hunting seasons, during which over 1,500 animals were killed. But last year, a federal judge overturned that decision, banning hunting and trapping and restoring the northern gray's endangered status in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In a similar move, last September a federal judge reinstated endangered status for grays in Wyoming, leaving Montana and Idaho the only western states without protections for wolves.