Commentary: TUCSON, Ariz.— Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation today that would give the states of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as ranchers, the right to dictate the terms of Mexican gray wolf recovery, undermining the scientific standards of the Endangered Species Act. States and ranchers have proven hostile to Mexican wolf recovery and have hampered the species’ recovery.
“This legislation doesn’t just let the fox guard the henhouse — it gives the fox title and deed,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Decisions about recovering highly endangered Mexican gray wolves should be based on science. They shouldn’t be based on the whims of the livestock industry and states, whose known hostility to wolves is out of step with the majority of Americans — both in the Southwest and across the country — who support the recovery of these beautiful and unique animals.”
The anti-wolf bill would impose a politically derived cap on the struggling wolf population, meaning wolves would be killed to satisfy an arbitrary population number before the population is even out of peril. The bill would prohibit recovery of the wolves north of Interstate 40 — thereby permanently banning Mexican wolves from the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountain ecosystems, which scientists say are critical to wolf recovery in the Southwest. The bill would also replace the Endangered Species Act’s science-based criteria for determining when the Mexican wolf could be taken off the endangered list, instead imposing criteria to be determined by the states and ranchers and precluding judicial review of this insidious change.
Mexican gray wolves were reduced to just seven animals as a result of a federal program of trapping and poisoning that was only halted through the 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act. Those seven wolves survived to be captured alive for breeding to stave off extinction. Reintroduction to the Southwest began in 1998, but numbers of wolves oscillated and declined precipitously from 2004 to 2009, when the Arizona Game and Fish Department controlled management and directed the trapping and shooting of numerous wolves, including genetically valuable animals. The population began to rise in 2010 after a conservationist lawsuit led to a resumption of federal management.
Thanks to a separate conservationist lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to finalize a Mexican wolf recovery plan by Nov. 30.
Arizona authorities have long opposed the release of captive wolf families into the wild, even though that is the most reliable means of bringing in more genetically diverse animals to ensure the survival of the wild population; currently, nearly all the wolves are related to each other as if they were siblings. Instead, Arizona authorities support the riskier release of neonatal wolf pups from captivity to “foster” wolf families. And in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez’s Game and Fish Department sued the federal Fish and Wildlife Service last year and obtained an injunction banning any wolf releases in the state. The Service and conservation organizations have appealed the injunction.
“The survival of Mexican gray wolves is already on the precipice because of longtime federal deference to state agencies that cynically advance the livestock industry’s anti-wolf agenda,” said the Center’s Robinson. “I’m afraid that passage of this bill would set the Southwest’s struggling wolves irreversibly on a one-way trail to extinction.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.2 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.