After years of politically-motivated delay in responding to scientists' recommendations, last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed allowing endangered Mexican gray wolves to roam from the Mexican border to Interstate 40, increasing by 15 times the area in which they'd be permitted to live.
The long overdue proposal, which must be finalized by January, is welcome news for the 83 Mexican wolves living in the wild in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.
Due to high mortality and infrequent releases from captive-breeding facilities, these wolves suffer from inbreeding, reducing litter sizes and survival rates.
The proposed changes include allowing release of wolves from captivity into the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Under current regulations, captive-bred wolves can only be released into areas of Arizona where wolves have already established territories, which they'll defend from other wolves. The new wolves would bring fresh DNA to stanch the inbreeding.
The proposal also includes provisions to expand existing loopholes and create new ones that will allow federal and state governments and citizens to kill more wolves.
For example, private lands could be designated as wolf-kill zones, to which wolves from nearby public lands might be baited to their deaths in strangulation snares.
And wolves could be shot from the air if state game agencies determine they are having an "unacceptable impact" on elk or deer.
Furthermore, wolves would be trapped if they establish territories north of Interstate 40 in important recovery-ecosystems in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains.
On the positive side, Alternative 3 would only somewhat increase the current level of wolf persecution.
Alternative 3, if improved, would allow necessary growth and conservation of a wolf population that has remained small and that has lost genetic diversity due to ongoing mismanagement since the reintroduction program began in 1998.
Over the past 16 years the government has shot 13 wolves on behalf of the livestock industry and accidentally killed 19 more through capture.
Recovery has been further limited by confining wolves to a politically-derived area, and by virtually ceasing release of new wolves — just three during the Obama presidency.
Only five breeding pairs of Mexican wolves live in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, according to the last annual wolf census, which was conducted in January.
If ill-conceived proposed wolf-killing loopholes can be closed, and existing loopholes tightened, this proposal can save the Mexican wolf from looming extinction, and in the process rejuvenate our ecosystems.
Wolves limit elk from browsing on streamside saplings, allowing trees to mature to the benefit of birds, beavers and fish. Wolves provide carrion for scavengers such as badgers, eagles and bears. And they help foxes, hares and pronghorns by controlling coyote populations.
As a recent op-ed on these pages makes clear ("U.S. government releases predators against its own people," Aug. 26), we will continue to hear misleading and irresponsible fear-mongering about wolves.
Thankfully, polls reveal that most New Mexicans rely on facts not fear, and support sharing the Southwest with these beautiful, intelligent, social animals — unfairly maligned creatures whose careful restoration can not only save the Mexican gray wolf but also help us to learn to live in balance.
Comments on the Mexican wolf proposal can be submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service through Sept. 23 at www.regulations.gov, docket no. FWS–R2–ES–2013–0056.