Mexican Wolves Win Endangered Species Status, but It's Still Legal to Kill Them
The Mexican gray wolf just got a lot more room to roam.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service this week granted the rare wolf—only about 83 survive in the wild—endangered species protection and increased by a factor of 10 the area in Arizona and New Mexico where the predator can be reintroduced.
But in a sign of how contentious the wolf is in the West, the FWS is allowing ranchers, and even pet owners, to kill any Mexican wolf if it is “in the act of biting, wounding, or killing” livestock or dogs on non-federal land. The agency will also permit the “opportunistic harassment” of Mexican wolves encountered by pet owners and others. That means they can shoot guns and throw objects at the wolf to scare it away.
“The provision to allow people to kill wolves to protect dogs, is worrisome because of the recent history of baiting Mexican wolves to their deaths, suggesting that pound dogs could be acquired to bait wolves," Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in New Mexico, said in an email, adding that it "is just one of many new loopholes opening up to increase killing of these wolves.”
CBD had sued the government to list the Mexican gray wolf subspecies as endangered and come up with a plan for its recovery.
By the early 1970s, the Mexican wolf had been all but exterminated in the southwestern U.S. A decade later, the few remaining wild Mexican wolves in Mexico were rounded up and put in a captive breeding program. Seven captive animals and their descendants have spawned a current population of 248 animals that live at 55 facilities in the U.S. and Mexico. In 1998, the agency began releasing the carnivore to create what it called an “experimental population” among the pine-oak and piñon-juniper woodlands of Arizona and New Mexico, home to elk, mule deer, and other wolf chow. The goal: 100 wolves in the wild.
“That number was derived solely to prevent the Mexican wolf from going extinct, not to recover the species,” FWS stated in a ruling issued on Monday.
But by now classifying the Mexican wolf as endangered, the government finally must develop a decades-delayed plan to ensure the animal’s survival and eventual removal from the endangered species list. In the ruling, the FWS set an initial goal of expanding the experimental population to between 300 and 325 wolves.
Environmental groups argue that the target is too low and that a population of at least 750 Mexican wolves should be established. They also want the animals to be allowed to expand into the Grand Canyon area and north of Interstate 40 into southern Colorado.
“Although the provision greatly increasing the area that wolves can roam is a vast improvement as well, the population cap, I-40 line and provisions for killing wolves far outweigh the positive,” said Robinson, adding that CBD intends to file a legal challenge to those provisions of the rule.
But FWS spokesperson Jeff Humphrey said the target applies to the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area and is not a cap on where the wolf might expand in the future.
“This population objective may change depending on the recommendations of a revised, peer reviewed recovery plan, which will specify the number of populations and number of wolves needed for recovery,” he said in an email.
The odds, however, remain stacked against the Mexican wolf—between 1998 and 2013, only 21 percent of wolves released into the wild survived long enough to produce offspring, according to the agency.