Written by Benjamin Fisher on May 18, 2016
The agencies are tied together in collaboration on many projects but have clashed in recent years over the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, through which Fish and Wildlife has been tasked with reintroducing and developing populations of Mexican wolves in suitable habitats in Arizona and New Mexico.
In 2014, when Fish and Wildlife revealed its revised plans for wolf recovery, they included an expansion of the permitted range of the wolf from isolated spaces in New Mexico and Arizona to almost all of the land in those states between Interstate 40 and the U.S. border with Mexico. The Service also accelerated plans for reintroductions and translocations of wolves from captivity or elsewhere in the wild, respectively, according to a system of three zones.
It is these reintroductions that have the two agencies at odds. The conflict has its roots in the balance of powers between the state and federal agencies, with state Game and Fish asserting that federal Fish and Wildlife requires its permission to introduce any wildlife in the state.
On Friday, May 13, Game and Fish announced that it had filed suit in 7th Judicial District Court to force a halt of Fish and Wildlife’s “unpermitted” and “illegal” releases of wildlife — especially the Mexican wolf — in a press release titled “Department Takes Action to Stop USFWS from Ignoring Federal and State Law.”
“The USFWS decision to move forward with unpermitted and illegal releases of wildlife into New Mexico demonstrates a disregard for our state’s sovereignty,” Game and Fish Director Alexandra Sandoval was quoted as saying in the release. “We have a responsibility to uphold the laws of our state and ensure the USFWS complies with applicable state and federal law. We intend to take those actions necessary to ensure adherence.”
The release claimed that the Service violated a New Mexico law requiring a state permit before any non-domesticated animal’s release, as well as a federal law instructing the Service to obtain a permit before release.
While Fish and Wildlife Service External Affairs Officer John Bailey said it is against policy to comment on ongoing litigation, the wolf’s recovery is central to the agency’s philosophy.
“Recovery of the Mexican wolf is a Service priority, and we believe cross-fostering is a valuable technique that increases the genetic diversity of the species,” Bailey told the Daily Press. Cross-fostering, taking pups from one litter and spreading them to packs in other areas, is one of several Fish and Wildlife strategies at the foundation of this dispute.
Furthermore, Bailey said the Service’s future releases of Mexican wolves are still in the planning phases.
Later on May 13, Fish and Wildlife announced that it had changed the venue for the suit from New Mexico’s 7th Judicial District Court to the U.S. District Court in Las Cruces.
Game and Fish released a statement insisting the review of state law violations belongs in state court, but “regardless of venue, [the department is] committed to pursuing this matter.”
Another of the department’s issues is the “absence of a current, non-interim recovery plan” for the wolf. This deficiency has been bemoaned by both opponents and supporters of the Mexican gray wolf’s recovery, as Fish and Wildlife’s actions are now based on a 1982 plan that has never been updated, despite progress and changes in the recovery.
Grant County ranchers, regularly at odds with the wolf reintroduction, have also voiced support for a plan update.
“[Game and Fish] have said they want to see a recovery plan; Fish and Wildlife have said they will upgrade it and haven’t,” said Grant County rancher Ty Bays. “They want to see, ‘What is recovery?’”
Bays said Fish and Wildlife’s definition for recovery for the wolf has shifted drastically in the decades he has been following the program.
“In 1988, Fish and Wildlife said recovery is 100 wolves,” he said. “Well, they have reached 100 wolves or close to it, and now they’re saying 350. That is one number I have heard. They’re saddled with the Mexican wolf, but they manage all other wildlife here too. It is only right that the New Mexico Game and Fish Department know what the goal is here, and if it will change 10 years from now once the number hits 350.”
Ellke Duerr, filmmaker and author of “Wolves and Humans: A New Story of Coexistence,” said that in her research for her projects she has spoken with numerous biologists and other experts who said the 97 wolves currently recorded in the wild are not enough to keep other populations in check. “Herds of elk and deer, coyotes — when the wolf comes back, all the other species come into balance,” she said.
That balance, Duerr said, should extend to the various stakeholders involved. “We all belong at the table — ranchers, conservationists, agencies and wolves,” she said.
U.S. Forest Service regional personnel were unavailable for comment Tuesday as to how either outcome of this legal action could alter Gila National Forest plans.