Mexican wolves, the rarest of all North American gray wolves, will now have legal protections within a much larger swath of Arizona and New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today issued a new rule that expands the range within which the animal may legally roam and lists the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The change “provides Mexican wolves the space they need to establish a larger and more genetically diverse population,” said Benjamin Tuggle, FWS’s southwest regional director in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a press release. An estimated 83 Mexican wolves survive in the Southwest, including just five breeding pairs; the animals are inbred.
Conservationists, however, say the moves are inadequate and plan to challenge them in court. “The Mexican gray wolf recovery program has been hamstrung from the start, and this new management rule doesn’t go nearly far enough to fix the problem,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, in a press release.
Once found throughout northern Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, parts of western Texas, and possibly Colorado and Utah, the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is a subspecies of the gray wolf (C. lupus). Mexican wolves vanished from the wild when the last remaining animals were captured in Mexico between 1977 and 1980. Since then, the U.S. and Mexican governments have worked to rebuild a genetically viable population through captive breeding and reintroducing wolves to the wild. FWS released the first Mexican wolves in 1998, designating the animals as an “experimental population” under the ESA in order to give the agency more legal latitude in managing the animals.
But the approach hampered the agency, too. In particular, it allowed FWS to release captive wolves only into a small zone within Arizona’s Blue Range of mountains; the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area covered just 16% of the approximately 90,000-hectare region. Any wolves that moved outside of the zone had to be captured and returned or placed in captivity. The tight regulations constrained FWS’s ability “to release additional wolves from captivity” and “to increase the size of the wild population,” the agency said in a press release today. It also adversely affected the wild wolves’ genetic health, leading to inbreeding problems.
To force FWS to address the wolves’ troubles, the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation organizations sued the agency in 2006 to revise its reintroduction program. That suit led to today’s new rule.
It expands the territory of the wolves fourfold from 18,679 square kilometers (the size of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in the 1998 regulations) to 398,477 square kilometers. It also increases the area where Mexican wolves raised in captivity can be released from 2986 sq km to 32,393 sq km—a range that extends from the Mexican border through much of Arizona and New Mexico. And it gives the Mexican wolf its own, separate listing under the ESA; previously it was lumped with the gray wolf. (FWS is considering removing the gray wolves from the list.)
The new rule also removes the stipulation that only captive-raised wolves can be released into the primary recovery zone of the Blue Range. Now naturally dispersing Mexican wolves can move in, too. And all the wolves can wander much more freely, although the agency will still capture and return wolves to the new designated zones (all of which fall south of U.S. Interstate 40).
“We are nervous about the genetic robustness of the population,” Tuggle said in an interview. Allowing the animals “to freely disperse” could lead to inbreeding with gray wolves. (A gray wolf from Wyoming moved into the Grand Canyon over the summer, but may have been killed by a coyote hunter last month in Utah.) “We want to focus on the core population. Once we’ve built that up, we can then let the wolves tell us where they want to be.”
Conservationists, however, say the revisions won’t bring the highly endangered animals back from the brink. The Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, and other groups say they are particularly alarmed by the plan’s goal of establishing a population of just 300 to 325 animals, and the provision that blocks the wolves from living north of U.S. Interstate 40. That effectively prevents Mexican wolves from inhabiting the Grand Canyon, northern New Mexico, and southern Colorado, they note.
FWS’s Tuggle says the agency is not trying to cap the wolves’ population. It set the 300 to 325 population as a goal that will help them “improve the genetics and management techniques as the population becomes more robust.” If the population exceeds 325, the agency will determine what action to take depending on the animals’ genetics.
FWS will issue permits to private individuals, such as ranchers, to kill wolves found preying on their livestock. The agency will also watch the wolves closely to see how many wild ungulates—such as elk, deer, and bighorn sheep—the animals take.