On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a highly fraught revised recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf, also known as the lobo, setting up a confrontation with conservationists and advocates for the predator.
The new proposal is far less robust than a Mexican wolf recovery plan developed in 2012 under the Obama administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service. At issue is the number of Mexican wolves that would signal endangered species protections ought to be removed.
Under the new plan, just 320 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, plus 170 wolves in Mexico, would mean the species could be downgraded from its protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
Currently, there are only 113 Mexican gray wolves, including just 10 breeding pairs, living in Arizona and New Mexico, and 30 to 35 wolves in Mexico, according to the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.
Conspicuously absent from the text is any plan to reintroduce the Mexican wolf into the Grand Canyon regions of Colorado or Utah – another provision of the scrapped 2012 plan. Neither state has Mexican gray wolf populations right now.
Arizona has been a staunch opponent to building up Mexican wolf populations; along with 18 other states, the state's attorney general sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 over the reintroduction plan. An appeals court sided with the federal government, allowing wolf recovery to move forward.
Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, praised the new plan for setting criteria for de-listing the species from its endangered status. He said his department has been actively engaged with the Fish and Wildlife Service in developing key concepts in the proposal.
"In my review of the plan, it strikes a middle ground position that meets the Endangered Species Act requirement to accomplish recovery," he told Phoenix New Times. "And when I say middle ground, there are entities that are opposed to recovery of Mexican wolves, and there are entities that want Mexican wolves essentially without limit, both in number and in distribution."
The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity say the new plan limits the size and range of Mexican wolf populations by excluding prime habitat in the Grand Canyon. But deVos argues that the new plan rightfully ignores the Grand Canyon as historical territory for the Mexican wolf.
"It’s historical range for a wolf, but not the subspecies baileyi," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife proposal will receive written comments from the public at informational meetings in Arizona and New Mexico until August 30.
The Mexican wolf was hunted to the brink of extinction from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
In a cruel bit of irony, the species’ scientific name (canis lupus baileyi) pays tribute to Vernon Bailey, a Department of Agriculture biologist who studied how to exterminate the animals, which he saw as pests, around the turn of the 20th century. Cattle ranchers wholeheartedly agreed with Bailey, and hunted the Mexican wolf with the blessing and even financial support of the federal government.
The Mexican gray was named an endangered species in 1976, and a captive breeding program that began with just seven Mexican wolves is the only reason the species still exists. Thanks to a 1998 reintroduction program, small populations of wolves live in southern Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Sierra Madre Occidental of northern Mexico. But these wolves still suffer from a lack of genetic diversity due to inbreeding.
Slowly, the U.S. and Mexico have been reintroducing wolves into the wild in an attempt to create resilient, genetically diverse populations. But the new plan changes the formula for what constitutes an ecological comeback.
Michael Robinson, a conservationist with Arizona’s Center for Biological Diversity, said the federal government and several Western state’s wildlife agencies bowed to the demands of a politically connected livestock industry, which abhors renewed wolf populations.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abdicated its responsibility to write a science-based plan, and as result what they have is a slender draft recovery plan,” Robinson told New Times. “It has almost no reference to the relevant science and it has a very low threshold for when wolves could lose federal protections.”
Also worrisome for conservationists: The Trump-appointed deputy director at Fish and Wildlife, Greg Sheehan, was previously the head of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Last year, he told Deseret News that establishing the Mexican wolf in southern Utah, part of the broader Grand Canyon ecosystem, was the wrong idea.
Robinson, however, said that because wolves pose such a minor threat, financial or otherwise, to the livestock industry, “what we’re seeing is ideological opposition.”
“It’s a disagreement with what most Americans already support, which is endangered species, including wolves, being a part of the web of life," Robinson said.