(EnviroNews Nature) — Denver, Colorado — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) can continue to release Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) from captivity into the wild after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an injunction halting the program on April 25, 2017, which conservationists say is needed to improve genetic diversity.
The injunction was granted in June 2016 after the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) sued the USFWS to halt the release program. The ruling held that “The [NMDGF] failed to present sufficient evidence to support a finding that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a preliminary injunction. As a result, the district court abused its discretion in granting the [NMDGF’s] request for injunctive relief.”
For 57 years, from 1915 to 1972, the U.S. Government carried out a program to poison and trap Mexican gray wolves at the behest of the livestock industry. From 1950 on, as part of a U.S. foreign-aid project, the program was extended into Mexico as well.
The Mexican wolf, known as “el lobo,” was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1976. All current Mexican gray wolves are descended from seven wild-caught wolves. The USFWS began reintroducing captive-bred wolves to the Blue Range Recovery Area of Arizona and New Mexico in March of 1998. Wolves have also been released in Mexico beginning in 2011.
The reintroduction program has not been without controversy. Local opposition in New Mexico’s Catron County is high stemming from fear of the carnivores and hostility by ranchers. As of January, only 113 lobos inhabit New Mexico and Arizona, with an additional 30 in Mexico.
“Now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can again release Mexican gray wolves into the wild in New Mexico, we hope that their numbers will continue to climb and that their genetic diversity in the wild will improve,” said Bryan Bird, Southwest Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders) in a statement emailed to EnviroNews. “Defenders will continue to work with local communities by providing them proactive strategies and tools to peacefully share the landscape with Mexican gray wolves.” Defenders joined the USFWS as interveners in the lawsuit, along with the Center for Biological Diversity (Center), WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
“We are encouraged by the court’s refusal to allow a minority of anti-carnivore political interests to hold the endangered lobo hostage and urge the [USFWS] to immediately resume much needed releases so that Mexican wolves may truly recover,” said Kelly Nokes, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians.
Smaller than the better-known gray wolf (Canis lupus) found further north, the Mexican gray wolf once roamed the borderlands in large numbers, feeding on deer, elk and javelina. At the end of 2015, just seven packs were breeding, producing 42 pups in 2015, while only 23 of those offspring are known to have survived until year’s end. Nevertheless, the population of Mexican wolves in the Wolf Recovery Area still declined 12 percent from 2014 to 2015.
“The federal government should now quickly move wolves back into the vast wild areas of the Gila [National Forest], America’s first protected wilderness,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “In this elk-filled forest, new wolves could replenish the existing population’s genetic diversity. They could also help maintain a natural balance in an era in which, all over the world, ecological processes such as predation are rapidly disappearing.”
However, the future of the wolf reintroduction program is about to be tested. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has introduced a bill, S.368, AKA the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan Act, which the Center describes as “legislation that would undercut the scientific standards used in the Endangered Species Act recovery of the Mexican gray wolf.” Conservation organizations, including the Center and Lobos of the Southwest, anticipate Flake will attempt to attach the legislation to the must-pass continuing budget resolution as a rider, which needs to be enacted by midnight April 28 to avoid a government shutdown.