ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. wildlife managers want to see at least 320 Mexican gray wolves roaming the Southwest within the next several years as they try to recover an endangered species that for decades has been the focus of political strife and litigation.
While a population cap would be eliminated under a proposed management rule, environmentalists say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t going far enough to ensure the recovery of the endangered species. They’re pushing for the release of more captive wolves — specifically bonded pairs with pups.
Federal officials on Friday released their draft decision on the management plan for the wolves and a related environmental review. Among other things, the plan outlines when and how wolves can be removed from the wild or released from captivity.
The changes were prompted by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. A federal judge had ordered that a revised plan be in place by July 1.
Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity said rising wolf numbers and a broader geographic distribution across New Mexico and Arizona should signal more security for the population in the short term. Still, he said the loss of genetic diversity will be a problem for the predators in the future.
“The government is pretending to conserve genetic diversity because of its court loss but refuses to release family packs with high survival rates," he said, noting that independent scientists also have pushed for the integration of underrepresented genes from captivity into the wild.
Robinson said failing to address genetic issues is at odds with the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and may violate the letter of the law.
New Mexico ranchers have their own concerns, noting that removing the population cap will result in more wolves on the landscape and ultimately more confrontation with livestock.
“On a daily basis ranching families contend with unpredictable weather, fluctuating markets and increasing regulations. Now, the federal government is moving the recovery plan ‘goal posts’ once again,” said Craig Ogden, president of New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau. "Our state’s ranchers are being sacrificed to achieve an ever-changing goal with no real finish line in sight.”
It's unclear whether the Fish and Wildlife Service's latest effort will result in another legal challenge by either ranchers or environmentalists.
Officials with the agency did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the groups' concerns.
The rarest subspecies of the gray wolf in North America, the Mexican wolf has seen its population increase over the last six years. A survey done earlier this year showed at least 196 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona.
The management rule would place restrictions on permits issued to ranchers or state wildlife agencies that allow the killing of wolves if they prey on livestock, elk or deer. In its draft decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service stated that by doing so, demographic and genetic threats to Mexican wolves would be significantly reduced in a decade or less.
Federal officials hope to reach their overall population objective as soon as 2028, and they expect to boost the survival rate of captive-bred wolves that are released into the wild in the coming years.
Officials also said that the revised plan for the first time puts into regulation a genetic objective, and meeting that goal along with the population objective would result in a 90% likelihood of the Mexican wolf population persisting over the next century.