Final U.S. plan leaves wolves in trouble

By Mary Katherine Ray, Chapter Wildlife Team chair

Under court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its final version of the long-awaited Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan in late November.

The Service received more than 100,000 comments about the draft, 99% of which were in support of wolf recovery (some of which were yours — thank you!).

Many of those comments were concerned with the low number of wolves allowed in the plan and the declining genetic diversity of the wild population.

Unfortunately, the final plan does not significantly address those concerns. It raises the upper limit of the population allowed in Mexico from 180 to 200 wolves but left the cap on the U.S. population at 320. Bear in mind that no endangered species has ever had an upper limit put on its numbers, and it means that from now until forever, no more than that number will be allowed to live in the wild in the U.S.

Biologists have previously found that more than double that number would be needed to ensure a sustainable wild population, and that they would need to roam a larger area that includes the Grand Canyon and Northern New Mexico north of I-40. The final plan does not allow wolves in the U.S. to roam north of the present Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area of Southern Arizona and New Mexico.

The final plan also relies heavily on a nascent population in Mexico to contribute to recovery, despite the Endangered Species Act having no authority outside of the U.S. and no connection between the U.S. population and that in Mexico. The final plan did moderate language from the draft that abdicated decisions about the timing, location and number of wolf releases to the states of Arizona and New Mexico to say that these decisions would be “made cooperatively” with the Game and Fish departments in each state.

To that end, the Fish and Wildlife Service is also now at last proposing for wolves to be released in 2018 to bolster the sagging genes of the wild population. But the Service is not intending that any wolf families that include adults be placed into the wild next year. Instead it is relying entirely on the cross-fostering of 12 captive-born wolf pups with important genes into six wild litters in the hope that the wild parents will accept the pups and raise them as their own. Cross-fostering of unrelated pups has been shown to be possible, but the logistics can be daunting. The pups of both the wild and captive litters can be no older than 14 days, and both litters have to have been whelped fewer than 10 days apart. If captive wolf families were released in whole, wolves of breeding age would be added to the wild immediately. Pups take two years to reach the point where their genes can begin to enter the wild population. Nonetheless, this plan, if realized, would represent a significant addition to the wild population.

Will the states of Arizona and New Mexico “cooperate” with this release proposal? Will the timing work? We will find out in the coming months. Meanwhile, a host of conservation groups have filed notices of intent to sue over the inadequacies of the final recovery plan.

For more information or to get involved, contact Mary Katherine Ray.

Featured image courtesy of Wolf Conservation Center. To boost the genes of wild lobos, the Fish & Wildlife Service plans to rely entirely on cross-fostering captive pups like this one into the litters of wild wolves. Such cross fostering is extremely difficult to carry out successfully. 

Final U.S. plan leaves wolves in trouble