Federal agency proposes new rules for gray wolves in Mexico

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed updating the legal framework that governs the management of endangered Mexican gray wolves, lifting a limit on wolf populations, and adding restrictions on how wolves can to be killed.

The revisions, released Wednesday, follow a 2018 court ruling that ordered the agency to address several key issues outlined in a lawsuit filed by conservation groups in 2015. In that lawsuit, the groups claimed that the rule had not ensured successful recovery of the cash.

In the final ruling, an Arizona federal judge agreed, stating that “the rule only provides for the short-term survival of the species and does not promote the long-term recovery of the Mexican wolf in the wild.” The case was referred to the agency.

To bring the rule into line with the law, the agency is proposing several changes to its regulations, which fall under the nonessential experimental population rule for Mexican wolves, also known as rule 10 (j).

The revisions include removing the population cap, adding a genetic target to combat limited gene flow, and restricting several ways that land managers and private landowners are allowed to kill wolves, also known as take dispositions.

During a press call on Wednesday, Tracy Melbihess, Mexican Wolf Policy Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that “these proposed revisions are intended to align the management of the experimental population with our wolf recovery plan. Mexican 2017. The Recovery Plan is the document that provides our strategy and long-term goals for restoring health to Mexico. “

Conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, applauded the decision to remove the wild population cap, which would have allowed wildlife managers to kill wolves as soon as possible. that the population exceeded 325 animals. .

But Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the center, said the proposed revisions fail to address some of the conservation groups’ other flaws cited with the rule of origin.

“Most importantly, it is very good news that this cap has been removed. It’s a threatening cloud that no longer hangs over this growing wolf population, ”said Robinson. “What this does is curb some of the worst abuses of current mismanagement, but it doesn’t solve the most fundamental problem, which is for the government to prioritize powerful cattle owners over the public interest in saving these endangered animals. ”

Also, Robinson said, the proposal does not include several conservation measures that biologists have recommended for years. These measures include requiring livestock owners to remove dead animals to avoid conflict, releasing family groups instead of taking individual puppies to release into the wild, and removing restrictions on wolves leaving the area. of experimental population.

A male Mexican gray wolf tries to escape capture inside an enclosure at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico on November 8, 2017. The wolf was to be transported to the Endangered Wolves Center in Eureka, Missouri, for breeding purposes.

This latter concern has been highlighted in recent years as wolves have dispersed north of the designated population area. This spring, “m2520”, a young male wolf named Anubis by a group of college kids, traveled over 200 miles to return to the area in August.

Last Friday, Anubis was seen just south of Flagstaff, to the delight of local wolf lovers.

Gray Wolves of Mexico:Wildlife officials drew a line at I-40, but did that interfere with recovery?

Another point of frustration for proponents and scientists of the review is what they see as a low bar for measuring the genetic health of the wild population. The agency proposes to assess the health of the population by monitoring a simple numerical metric: whether at least 22 captive crossbred puppies survive to breeding age, two years, in the wild.

But that does nothing to monitor the actual genetic health of the population, according to Carlos Carroll, an environmentalist who served on an earlier version of the scientific and sub-planning committee for the recovery of the Mexican wolf and whose work, according to the judge. , was misinterpreted when applied to the original Rule 10 (j).

“For a lot of endangered species with small populations like the California condor or the black-footed ferret, they actually monitor genetic health directly. You can look at DNA samples from animals when we handle them, or use the pedigree known, to see how so we don’t need to use those kind of surrogates like the number of wolves released, ”Carroll said.“ I think (USFWS) tried to do the minimum possible which according to them, will pass the judges’ examination. “

Wolf advocates and scientists also claim that the restrictions on the slaughter of wolves are not really significant because the conditions under which they come into play are so tight.

The USFWS offers three revisions: States can no longer kill wolves due to perceived effects on elk and deer populations, livestock owners could no longer kill wolves by attacking cattle on federal lands, and the agency would not grant permits to private owners. kill wolves on their land.

The latter two of these restrictions would only come into effect if the expected number of foster wolves had not reached breeding age and one or more foster wolves had been killed under the provisions the previous year. If none or only one of these situations were in effect, permits could still be issued to kill wolves.

The USFWS would like to see at least seven captive-born puppies released since 2016 survive in 2021, and the number will gradually increase to 22 by 2030. For example, next year the goal is to document nine crossbreed puppies. that survive to breeding age from the start of the program.

Scarlet, a Mexican gray wolf named after the surgical scar on its muzzle, is one of three wolves remaining at the Phoenix Zoo.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department reports that there are approximately 186 Mexican wolves in the wild, including 22 crossbreed puppies that were released this year.

A total of 72 captive-born puppies have been released since the start of the program. Of the 30 crossbreed puppies released before 2020, the USFWS reports that at least seven of them survived to breeding age, meaning restrictions on issuing permits to kill Mexican wolves no ‘would not come into force if the proposed revisions were implemented.

Federal officials released a draft environmental impact statement on Friday, which includes a detailed overview of the anticipated effects of the proposed updated rule. The agency is currently reviewing three versions of the EIA. Option A would use all of the proposed revisions, Option B would use all of the proposed revisions except the restriction on the killing of wolves, and Option C would take no action.

The agency is seeking public comment on the proposal for the next 90 days, and commenters are encouraged to write, email, or leave an email comment at www.regulations.gov, using file # FWS-R2- ES-2021-0103. The final regulations are expected to be released in July.

Starting next month, the USFWS will host several town halls, one per month until January, which the public is invited to join.

“I think there is a valid rationale for 10 (j) populations, given opposition to reintroducing species like wolves or grizzly bears. Politically speaking, you would never have had the reintroductions in Yellowstone without the 10 (j) designation, ”Carroll said.

“I think there is a lot of flexibility with which the service can handle the 10 (j) designation, so if they handle it in a fairly careful and species-protective way, it will work well. allow a lot to take wolf removal or do other things that they are allowed to do under 10 (j) but that are detrimental to the population, then that will hamper recovery. ”

Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic / azcentral. Follow his report on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him stories at [email protected]

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic’s environmental reporting team on environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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