Judge: Government plans to recover Mexican gray wolf in Arizona insufficient

A federal judge in Arizona ruled wildlife managers have not done enough to protect a subspecies of wolf endemic to the American Southwest.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps granted a coalition of green organizations summary judgment, saying that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife failed to implement a program that would assist the recovery of the Mexican Gray Wolf.

“The best available science consistently shows that recovery requires consideration of long-term impacts, particularly the subspecies’ genetic health,” Zipps said. “Moreover, this case is unique in that the same scientists that are cited by the agency publicly communicated their concern that the agency misapplied and misinterpreted findings in such a manner that the recovery of the species is compromised.”

The Mexican Gray Wolf is nearly extinct in the United States, pushed to the brink by mostly hunters and livestock owners. About 100 wolves remain in the Southwest according to the most recent counts.

In the 1980s, the wolf population in the United States was virtually gone. A few individuals remained in northern Mexico.

Soon after, the two countries undertook a recovery plan aimed at bringing back the population of a distinct subspecies to the 250-300 range. To do this, the federal government decided to raise some of the wolves in captivity and then release some of them into the wild — or into a specified 150,000-area in the Blue Range which straddles the Arizona and New Mexico border.

The effort proved difficult, mostly due to illegal shootings of wolves by livestock owners and hunters. It also proved unpopular with local residents.

In response to local pressure, the forest service attempted to update its management plan that expanded the means by which locals could legally kill wolves.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other wildlife advocacy organizations filed suit immediately, saying the agencies had the obligation to follow the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, regardless of the public blowback.

Zipps agreed.

“As FWS observed in 1982, any recovery effort must deal with the residue of a long history of anti-wolf sentiment by the public,” she wrote in a 44-page ruling. “However, any effort to make the recovery effort more effective must be accomplished without undermining the scientific integrity of the agency’s findings and without subverting the statutory mandate to further recovery. The agency failed to do so here.”

The conservationists touted the ruling as a major victory.

“This ruling offers hope that the Mexican wolf can be pulled back from the brink of extinction before it is too late,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who argued the case for plaintiffs.  “The judge made clear that management of the lobo must follow the law and the science on Mexican wolf recovery instead of giving in to the political demands of wolf foes.”

Part of the recovery plan implementation opposed by the greens include capping the population at 325, barring the wolves from roaming north of Interstate 40 and restricting legal killing of wolves.

Part of the problem, according to Zipps, is that expanded killing allowances fails to take into account genetically important members of the population, which is so low that dangers of inbreeding and its attendant woes are present.

“The court today reversed what seemed a dim future for the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwestern U.S.,” said Bryan Bird of Defenders of Wildlife.”If the lobo is going to have a real chance at recovery, it needs room to roam and protection from unnecessary persecution.”