ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — Environmentalists pushing for the release of more Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico are worried federal regulators are allowing Arizona to control the process and severely limit releases.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made it clear it wants state wildlife agencies to take the lead, said Sandy Bahr, the Phoenix-based director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. Bahr tells the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/SzuFne ) for a story in Sunday's editions that has led to no releases at all in the past four years.
Arizona is now proposing to release between one and three captive wolves next year to replace three lobos illegally shot between November 2011 and July 2012 in Arizona. Only wolves killed in Arizona since the start of 2011 would be eligible for replacement. At least 12 wolves were killed illegally in New Mexico from the start of 2009 through 2011.
The proposal follows an Arizona Game and Fish Commission policy that says the agency will only support replacing wolves killed illegally or that have died from "natural events," such as vehicle collisions or lightning strikes.
The Arizona commission delegated to its director authority to decide whether to replace a wolf killed illegally, but it retained the authority when it comes to wolves killed by natural causes.
Asked whether the Arizona commission or its Game and Fish Department have the final say on whether wolves are released into the recovery zone in that state, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman issued a statement saying the federal government is responsible under the Endangered Species Act for recovering the wild wolf population.
The statement also said the federal agency and state work as "partners" in wolf recovery under a memorandum of understanding and that state partners "have no decision-making authority over" the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But Peter Ossorio, a Las Cruces-based advocate of wolf recovery, said he was skeptical of the Service's stated position. Ossorio said Arizona's proposal amounts to a "veto" over new releases. He noted that in the spring of 2010, Fish and Wildlife had readied a wolf pack for release. But it was delayed because "this proposed release has not yet been formally approved by AGFD (Arizona Game and Fish Department)," according to the program's monthly notes published online.
The release never occurred, and the wolves have since been moved to a zoo. No wolf releases have occurred since late 2008, and the Service provided no information about any other releases it is considering for 2013.
Under existing rules, captive-bred wolves can be released only to a primary recovery zone in Arizona. That means the "secondary" recovery zone in New Mexico, including the Gila National Forest, is available only for the relocation of previously captured wolves.
Bahr said the Arizona commission's policy on new releases amounts to advocating "no net increase" in the number of wolves in the state.
Arizona Game Commission Chairman Norman Freeman disagreed with that characterization, saying that a cautious approach to releases is in the best interests of the lobos.
"As much as the commission wants to see the wolves recovered, just releasing them willy-nilly is not a good thing," Freeman said. Later, he added, "Releasing wolves with a plan that all the stakeholders have not bought into or come to consensus on is bad for the wolves."
The Mexican gray wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 after it was nearly wiped out by government trapping and poisoning designed to help cattle ranchers. According to a Center for Biological Diversity history, the last five survivors were captured between 1977 and 1980 bred in captivity.
The first wolves under a recovery effort for the Southwest were released in 1998 with an expected population of 100 in Arizona and New Mexico by 2006. Instead there's about 60. Environmentalists say the predators are critical to a diverse ecosystem.
Ranchers generally oppose their reintroduction, arguing wolves threaten their cattle.
Environmentalists have repeatedly sued to push reforms of the federal government's troubled effort to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves in the American Southwest.