** FILE ** In this photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a gray wolf rests in tall grass. Wolves spreading out of Yellowstone National Park into Montana's upper Gallatin River basin have triggered the regeneration of streamside willows gone for 70 years by restoring an "ecology of fear" that changes the way elk eat. (AP Photo/US Fish & Wildlife, File)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service is scrapping any immediate plans to allow the beleaguered
Mexican gray wolf population to expand north to the Grand Canyon, as
many wolf advocates and scientists have advocated in recent years.
But wolves could still roam as far north as Flagstaff, so long as they didn’t cross Interstate 40.
Thursday, the federal government published its long-awaited draft
environmental impact statement, as well as revisions to proposed rule
changes for the wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico. Depending on
the final plan, it could be the most significant change for the Mexican
gray wolf since being reintroduced to the wild following their
The proposal drastically expands the potential wolf
habitat beyond its current small range along the New Mexico-Arizona
border, where the animal has been limited since 1998. Under most
alternatives in the proposed plan, wolves would be able to roam in New
Mexico and Arizona from Interstate 40 south to the border of Mexico. Wolves wandering north to habitat on the San Francisco Peaks or Grand Canyon National Park and beyond would be removed.
the proposed rule changes announced by Fish and Wildlife last summer
would have set the wolf’s southern boundary at Interstate 10. The agency
decided to expand the boundary all the way down to Mexico because that
country’s government has started its own reintroduction plan in recent
years. Last week, Mexico announced the first wild-born lobo pups seen in
Wolves will often roam vast
distances in search of food and mates. That makes it increasingly likely
that the animals will cross the border and end up in southern Arizona
and New Mexico. But Fish and Wildlife says that this plan is only a
stopgap measure, legally mandated after settling a lawsuit with the
Center for Biological Diversity.
Once the environmental impact
statement process is completed, federal scientists will immediately get
back to work on a plan for long-term recovery of the wolf. That long
term plan is expected to be released within the next two to three years,
according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. “You have to keep in
mind what our objective is right now, which is an interim step toward
conservation and recovery of the Mexican gray wolf,” said Tracy
Melbihess of the federal Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. “We have not yet
determined what the big picture is for the Mexican gray wolf. We know
it’s going to probably entail several populations spread over a large
Instead, the current goal is to build up the
population from its current core in the Blue Range. The species will
keep its experimental, non-essential designation. The long-term
plan could still eventually include the Grand Canyon and other regions
north of Interstate 40, she said. Scientists will determine exactly how
big that area is and what regions are included.
RANCHERS ALLOWED TO KILL
the plan was not completely popular with conservationists, who saw it
as playing politics with an endangered species even though they were
happy the animals’ habitat was being expanded. “It appears they’re
still not going to let them roam beyond I-40, which cuts them off from
the Grand Canyon ecoregion, as well as the Rocky Mountains, which are
both places that scientists have said Mexican gray wolves need in order
to be able to recover,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for
Robinson said that Fish and Wildlife has
been working on a long-term recovery plan since the 1980s. He added,
“FWS only engages in wolf conservation when sued.” He was also
concerned about expanded powers for the state and ranchers to kill
wolves under the plan. Mexican wolves have been limited to mostly
federal land since their reintroduction, but allowing them to spread
across much of the Southwest will bring them into conflict more often
with ranchers on private property.
But Melbihess said that illegal
kills are a much larger concern for the wolf population than the legal
kills that would be allowed under the environmental impact statement. The
proposed rule would allow people to kill a wolf if it was attacking
their dogs. The wolves have killed pets in encounters with both hikers
and ranchers in the past.
It would also allow a rancher to kill
wolves attacking their livestock. Ranchers are currently compensated for
lost livestock at a rate of 100 percent for a confirmed kill and 50
percent for a suspected kill.
But Robinson said that he was also
concerned with a proposal that would prevent federal agents from being
prosecuted if they accidentally shot a wolf. That situation recently
arose after a hunter for the Department of Agriculture shot a wolf and
said he believed it was coyote. Environmental groups accused the federal
government of concealing the shooting after it wasn’t disclosed on the
monthly mortality list. The groups found out about the shooting through
leaked information and pushed for punishment, but prosecutors eventually
declined charges. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has greatly
politicized Mexican gray wolf management under pressure from Arizona
Game and Fish and the livestock industry for a long time,” Robinson
said. “This is not an unfamiliar phenomenon.”
Most recently, the
State of Utah has been applying political pressure, he said. Officials
in that state have expressed concerns that wolves at the Grand Canyon
would wander into Utah and establish packs there.
asked if the agency was considering politics in the animal’s recovery,
Melbihess said that the proposed rule was an attempt to balance the
concerns of the people who live on the land with the need to protect the
species. “What we are trying to do right now is take an
incremental step that demonstrates we are improving the conservation of
Mexican gray wolves, but we’re trying to do it in a way that could be
integrated with the people and the landscape that live in the
Southwest,” Melbihess said.
She said that the balancing act
included expanded areas for the wolf to live and to be released into the
wild, as well as liberalizing the process for ranchers to kill a wolf.
The feds implemented a number of recommendations made by the Arizona
Game and Fish Department in partnership with a large number of hunting
and cattle groups.
Still, Melbihess says that, in the future, the
agency fully expects to expand the Mexican gray wolf’s range in order
for it to survive. “We do not think that we can achieve recovery
with the proposal we’re putting forward right now,” Melbihess said. “You
need multiple populations and each needs to be of a size that ensures
it will persist. The landscape for that does not exist south of I-40.”
Exactly how big that population needs to be is yet to be determined.