Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Does imperiled Mexican gray wolf belong in Utah? No way, 4 states say

First Published  

Federal wildlife officials are set to convene yet another effort to craft a recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf after three failed attempts over the past three decades.
But Utah leaders and the state's wildlife board now allege the agency has rigged the science to improperly include the Four Corners region in the recovery zone for this critically imperiled wolf subspecies.
The Utah Wildlife Board on Wednesday is expected to finalize a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanding that the agency reconstitute the agency's recovery team with members who are more "neutral" than the biologists currently assigned to the task.
The team is scheduled to begin meeting next week at the COD Ranch outside Tucson, Ariz. Utah also objects to this venue, because it is has hosted meetings of conservation groups.
The wildlife board also has a major ground rule for the Mexican wolf recovery planning process: No consideration should be given to terrain north of Interstate 40, the freeway that cuts across Arizona and New Mexico about 130 miles south of the Utah state line, according to statements made at the board's last meeting in October.
It was at this meeting that the board authorized Assistant Utah Attorney General Martin Bushman to draft the letter to FWS and the Department of Interior.
The complaints raised in this letter closely align with a Nov. 13 letter to FWS director Dan Ashe signed by four governors, including Utah's Gary Herbert. The four states — Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona as well as Utah — are "seriously troubled" by FWS' selection of "non-neutral" scientists bent on establishing the Mexican wolf north of I-40 rather than looking to the south.
"The panel as presently constituted will be driven as much or more by personal agenda than by science. This is unacceptable," the letter states. "Given that 90 percent of the subspecies' historical range is in Mexico, any serious recovery planning effort must headline a Mexico-centric approach rather than the translocation of the subspecies out of its historical range into new, previously uninhabited ranges of northern Arizona / New Mexico and southern Utah / Colorado."
FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said the agency yet to decide how it will respond to the governors' concerns.
The letters do not name the allegedly biased scientists or identify who the states do want on the team.

The recovery team is currently comprised of Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, who has participated in prior recovery planning attempts; Peter Siminski, former mammals curator at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; Carlos Carroll of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research; Doug Smith, the project leader for the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project; Richard Fredrickson, a former Arizona State University biologist now based in Montana; and John Vucetich, a demographics expert with Michigan Technological University.
These are North America's most respected wolf biologists, Phillips said.
"I would challenge anyone to present a better body related to wolf recovery," said Phillips, who serves in the Montana Senate as a Democrat representing Bozeman. "I'm proud of the agenda I have, and that's to do my fair share to do the best science that can support a Mexican wolf recovery plan."
He contends Mexican wolves historically drifted far to the north, reaching Utah and Colorado, which served as a mixing zone for gray wolves before they were eradicated in the early 20th century. Today, fewer than 100 Mexican wolves survive in the Blue Range, a designated wolf re-introduction area spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border.
While FWS considers de-listing the gray wolf from protection, it has extend federal protection to the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies known by the scientific name Canis lupus baileyi. The animal is better known by its colloquial Spanish moniker, lobo, which is the name of University of New Mexico's sports teams. The northern gray wolf is C. lupus occidentalis.
Phillips contends the best science shows any plan that does not include Utah and Colorado is doomed to fail because remaining wolf habitat in Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico lacks the prey base to sustain the lobos' recovery.
In past planning, the team pegged recovery at 750 wolves spread around three populations areas that included southern Colorado and the Grand Canyon ecosystem, which extends into Utah's San Juan and Kane counties.
More important than this number, which is probably too "optimistic," are the connections between the populations areas that would enable a deepening of what is now a "depauperate" gene pool, short of natural size and variety, Phillips said.
In an interview, Bushman said FWS is not authorized to recover a species outside its historic range.