Sunday, June 12, 2016

Albuquerque judge halts wolf releases

By Scott Sandlin / Journal Staff Writer
A federal judge on Friday granted the state’s request to halt the introduction of wolves in New Mexico until U.S. Fish and Wildlife obtains a state permit, but also said that two captive-bred pups already introduced into a wild litter need not be removed.

U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson’s 24-page opinion and order follow a May 26 hearing at which the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish asked the court to stop federal plans to release a pack of wolves in New Mexico, to cross-foster pups into up to five packs in Arizona, to relocate a single wolf in New Mexico or Arizona and to move around others as needed.

“I am very pleased with the judge’s ruling,” Game and Fish Department director Alexandra Sandoval said in a statement. “We refused to let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disregard our state’s sovereignty. We will continue our effort to uphold the laws of New Mexico and ensure the Service complies with applicable state and federal law.”

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said he was grateful “the court did not order the removal of the pups, which would have caused their lifelong captivity.”

A Mexican gray wolf in a pen on the Ladder Ranch in New Mexico in 2002. A federal judge has ruled on the planned release of captive wolves in New Mexico. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

But, “The decision banning the releases of captive-born wolves condemns the wild ones to continue finding mates among close relatives, which is reducing reproductive success and may doom this unique Southwestern animal to extinction,” he said.
Federal wildlife officials could not be reached for comment.

Defenders of Wildlife, an ardent proponent of wolf releases, said in a statement that the court ruling “take(s) the Mexican gray wolf one step closer to extinction in the wild … . The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the ultimate authority to determine how to recover our endangered species. The states are playing ‘puppy politics’ and working to tie the hands of (the service) in their duty to recover the lobo.”

The state took federal officials to court after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went forward with plans to introduce wolves into the wild even after Sandoval and, later, the full commission denied a state permit to do so. State law requires anyone importing and releasing nondomesticated animals to get a permit beforehand and federal officials had in previous years obtained a permit.

Federal wildlife officials argued that consultation was required only if failing to get a permit would keep the wildlife service from carrying out its statutory duties.

The action described in the 2016 release plan for the service’s Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area “is not merely tentative,” Johnson said in the ruling, and constitutes a final action subject to judicial review.

Federal wildlife officials planned the release to improve the genetic makeup of the wolf population, which they say has declined over the past year and whose viability is weakened by inbreeding. They did so after revising a federal rule on endangered species after taking public comment and preparing an environmental impact statement.

But state game officials have said the federal actions interfere with their ability to manage the state wildlife population, particularly with regard to elk, deer and antelope. Wolves must be closely managed because predator-prey relationships have ripple effects within ecosystems, the state has argued.

“By foregoing compliance with the state’s permitting requirements, (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) directly impact(s) the obligations of the (New Mexico Game and Fish) department to monitor, manage, and otherwise regulate New Mexico’s comprehensive wildlife management effort,” Johnson wrote in agreement.

Compliance with state permit requirements, the court said, doesn’t mean that Fish and Wildlife is unable to carry out its duties under the Endangered Species Act.

It is the federal regulation that places the burden on federal agencies of complying with state permit requirements, he said.

The attorneys general of Utah, Colorado and Arizona sent letters to Johnson this week in support of New Mexico’s position, but attorneys defending U.S. Fish and Wildlife said those states had failed to follow the rules to achieve “friend-of-the-court” status and their comments should be disregarded.


Judge bars feds from releasing more Mexican gray wolves in wild

Posted: Friday, June 10, 2016
A federal judge on Friday granted the New Mexico state government a temporary injunction preventing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing any more Mexican gray wolves into the wild.
U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson of Las Cruces sided with the state Department of Game and Fish, which objected last month after the federal agency released two 9-day-old wolf pups into the Gila National Forest. The state agency said wolves cannot be released in New Mexico unless it issues permits for them, an argument that Johnson accepted.
The state also asked that the wolf pups be removed from the wild, but Johnson denied that request.
For its part, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said sending more wolves to the wild was part of its attempt to grow and diversify a population in which inbreeding is rampant.

Just 97 Mexican gray wolves are living in the wild, according to the annual survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Johnson enjoined the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from importing or releasing any wolves or wolf offspring without first obtaining a permit from the state.

The service, however, argued that its authority to add to the wolf population was rooted in the Endangered Species Act and it did not need to consult with the state. It said the law should override the state’s permit process and the releases would have a minimal environmental impact.

Johnson disagreed, writing in the decision that the state “has sufficiently shown a significant risk that the release of an apex predator, without Petitioner’s [state’s] knowledge of the time, location, or number of releases, presents a serious enough risk of harm to the State’s comprehensive wildlife management effort to satisfy the irreparable injury requirement.”

According to the court order, the state argued that between 1998, when the federal government first began releasing wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, it had always received a permit before the releases occurred. But following two permit denials by the State Game Commission in 2015, on the basis that the service did not have an adequate management plan, the service said it would move forward regardless of the state permitting requirements. Johnson found that the federal agency was required to consult with the state in order to facilitate a wildlife release.

One conservation group quickly criticized Johnson’s ruling.

“The court’s actions today take the Mexican gray wolf one step closer to extinction in the wild,” said Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife.

Sargent said the wolves’ survival might be dependent on the federal agency appealing Johnson’s ruling.

Defenders of Wildlife is one of several conservation groups, including WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, who filed a motion to intervene against the state earlier this week, advocating to keep the pups in the wild, saying not to do so would be a “crime against nature.”

The groups are hoping to be granted intervenor status to participate fully in the ongoing case.
“For the wolves it is incredibly time-sensitive because we need to get as many new wolves released into the wild as possible,” she said. Sargent said the opportunity to release any more pups had already passed and the period where adult wolves can be released, typically summer months, is quickly passing, too.

“If they miss that because of this preliminary injunction, there won’t be any releases in New Mexico this year,” she said. “And that is really serious.”

Game and Fish spokesmen did not respond to calls for comment Friday evening.