Groups intend to sue Fish and Wildlife over failure to release plan that could include Utah in recovery zone.
By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune
Nearly four decades after the gray wolf won protection as an endangered species, federal authorities have yet to complete a recovery plan for a subspecies native to the American Southwest.
Now conservation groups have told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expect a lawsuit if the agency fails to release a plan for the Mexican gray wolf in the next 60 days, arguing that the agency is in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Fish and Wildlife’s three-year-old draft plan indicated southern Utah should be included in one of three recovery areas, even though it is not clear how far north the subspecies, better known by its Spanish name "lobo," roamed. Federal hunters killed Utah’s last wolves in San Juan County in the early 1930s.
Fish and Wildlife officials declined comment because of the threat of litigation.
The Center for Biological Diversity and its allies contend wolf-appropriate habitat is waiting to be occupied in the Grand Canyon ecosystem, which includes parts of Utah’s Kane and San Juan counties.
With individual animals raised in a captive-breeding program, Mexican gray wolves were re-introduced into the Blue Range straddling the Arizona-New Mexico line in 1998. Unlike the successful Yellowstone wolf re-introduction, the southern population has yet to proliferate and is at serious risk of genetic inbreeding, advocates say. "Only by developing and implementing a comprehensive and legally compliant recovery plan reflecting the best available scientific information can FWS salvage the floundering Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program, avert extinction of this iconic species, and restore this irreplaceable part of our wild natural heritage to the American landscape," wrote Earthjustice attorneys Tim Preso and Heidi McIntosh in a notice sent Wednesday to the U.S. Department of Interior.
The threatened suit comes at a time when the service is considering delisting of the gray wolf and handing management of the controversial predator to the states. But the proposal would maintain protected status for the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies.
Wolves would enjoy no welcome in southern Utah, whose county commissioners and lawmakers would be sure to fight any effort to stretch a recovery area across the Arizona state line. Meanwhile, FWS has proposed a rule to pick up and relocate any wolf that wanders north of Interstate 40 and to allow additional killings of wolves if they stalk livestock. Advocates believe the lobos are doomed without room to roam.
The wolf subspecies that once inhabited southern Utah and Colorado was likely hunted into extinction long ago, so it is scientifically defensible to reserve parts of the region for a close relative that is clinging to survival, argued Michael Robinson, a New Mexico-based advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
According to David Parsons, the retired FWS Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, the service worked hard to develop a plan until a few years ago. But a 2011 draft spurred allegations by Utah political leaders that the feds were preparing to "introduce" Mexican gray wolves into Utah. Although the charge was unfounded, the recovery plan went dark following the ensuing political outcry. "The service-appointed scientists on the most recent recovery team completed extensive analyses," Parsons said. "Aspects of that science that are crucial to full recovery of Mexican wolves have been peer reviewed and published, but the Service refuses to acknowledge this new science and simply shut down the recovery planning process in 2011."