August 12, 2009

Petitions Filed To Protect A Unique Wolf

Gray wolves may all have their color in common, but the Mexican gray wolf is the rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies, and conservationists are working to give the animals specific protection under federal law to avoid extinction.

This week, petitions were filed by three separate conservation groups requesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list the Mexican gray wolf on the federal endangered species list separate from other gray wolves in North America. According to them, this would urge the agency to give more consideration to the animal.

"It's obvious that absent a sub-specific designation, Mexican wolves will continue to flounder in the wild and may in fact go extinct for a second time," said Rob Edward from WildEarth Guardians, which is one of the groups that filed a petition.

The Mexican Wolf is the smallest Gray Wolf subspecies in North America. This wolf, about the size of a German Shepherd dog, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s. It was first listed as endangered as an individual species in 1976, but then the Fish and Wildlife Service put all gray wolves in the same category in 1978 and included the Mexican wolves.

According to Edward, the Mexican wolves are being treated as a "side show" despite the fact that they are barely able to survive the wild at this point.

On Tuesday, spokeswoman Charna Lefton with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque said that the agency plans to review the petitions. She then noted that the agency is currently preparing an environmental impact statement that has to do with wolf recovery and that the writing of a new recovery plan would ensue.

"The Mexican gray wolf is a huge issue for us and we are committed to having a healthy, stable population of wolves in the wild," she said.

Wolves were reintroduced by the government beginning in 1998, along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million acre-plus territory with scattered forests, private land and towns.

Originally, biologists were reasonably hopeful that there would be at least 100 wolves in the wild and 18 breeding pairs by 2006.

However, the results of the most recent survey shows there were 52 wolves scattered between New Mexico and Arizona at the end of 2008.

Illegal shootings, complaints from ranchers losing cattle to the wolves, and the removal of wolves that have broken the program's three-strikes rule have all hindered the reintroduction efforts. The three-strikes rule gives federal agents the permission to kill or trap and remove any wolf that has been involved in three livestock killings within a year.

WildEarth Guardians, The Rewilding Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity hope their petitions will force the Fish and Wildlife Service to bring the antiquated recovery plan up to date.

"I think this is a real exception where you have this recovery program but you don't have a clear idea of what the recovery goals should be based on the current science," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The petition of Greenwald's group on Tuesday differed from the other filings of WildEarth Guardians and The Rewilding Institute, in that they asked the agency to list the Mexican wolf as either a subspecies or as a distinct population.

Their petition contends that Mexican wolves are separated from their nearest cousins in the Rocky Mountains by more than 700 miles. They also live in a warm and dry environment that limits vegetation and prey, unlike other gray wolves.

The desperate situation of the Mexican gray wolf and the need to set aside critical habitat to ensure its recovery are things expressed in both petitions. Conservationists say livestock grazing and human activity pose the greatest threats to the wolves.

If the petitions get a favorable response from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency would then have to develop a proposed listing rule and eventually a new recovery plan.

According to Lefton, revamping the plan "is not a new concept" to the Fish and Wildlife Service and that biologists and agency officials have been discussing the best way to tackle it for a long time.


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