TUCSON — A federal judge’s April 2 ruling could mean fewer restrictions to the release of captive-bred Mexican wolves into the wild.
Mexican wolves, thought to be the smallest subspecies of gray wolves in North America, have been protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1976. By 1981, the last remaining wild wolves were rounded up to start a captive breeding program — all current wolves roaming Arizona and New Mexico are descendants of these seven individuals.
U.S. District Court judge Jennifer Zipps’ ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife. The plaintiffs allege the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The lawsuit was filed under the Administrative Procedure Act, which allows a judge to set aside a government agency’s actions if they are found to be capricious, arbitrary or otherwise not in accordance with applicable law.
The Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan hasn’t been formally updated since 1982, although revisions to that plan came in 1998 and again in 2015. The 1998 revision, the 10(j) rule, capped the number of wild wolves deemed necessary for recovery of the species at 100, split into about 14 family groups.
In 2015, this 10 (j) rule was revised again, this time raising the cap to 300-325 individuals and establishing a territory encompassing all of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40.
That range is, in part, one of the central issues of the recovery program, along with depressed genetic diversity. USFWS estimates that only three founder genome equivalents remain in today’s population —more than half the genetic diversity of the original seven population founders has been lost through inbreeding.
Zipps found that the 2015 10(j) rule revision fails to further recovery of the Mexican wolf — specifically, the plan only accounts for short-term survival of the species and does not provide for the minimum required amount of genetic diversity to recover the species in the long-term. Zipps also ruled that the 10(j) revision, which expanded conditions for the lethal and non-lethal removal of the wolves from the recovery zone, did not take into account the potential loss of genetically valuable wolves.
“The Court is not unsympathetic to the challenges the agency (USFWS) faces in its efforts to recover such a socially controversial species,” Zipps wrote in the summary judgment. “However, any effort to make the recovery effort more effective must be accomplished without undermining the scientific integrity of the agency’s findings and without subverting the statutory mandate to further recovery.”
Zipps went on to write that “the best available science consistently shows that recovery requires consideration of long-term impacts, particularly the subspecies’ genetic health.” The Court also found the same scientists USFWS referred to in their revision had publicly communicated concerns that the agency misinterpreted or misapplied their research when formulating the plan.
Additionally, Zipps found the USFWS relied on outdated science when it deemed the experimental population as non-essential to the continuation of the species.
“FWS made no findings regarding the current state of the Mexican wolf experimental population,” she wrote. “Rather, it relied on findings it made in 1998, when circumstances were markedly different than they are today.”
The judge ordered government officials to revise the rule in response to her ruling and ordered the parties to the case to report back in 30 days with a proposed deadline for that revision.
“This ruling offers hope that the Mexican wolf can be pulled back from the brink of extinction before it is too late,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso in a press release. “The judge made clear that management of the lobo must follow the law and the science on Mexican wolf recovery instead of giving in to … political demands.”
Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling makes clear the USFWS has to do more to protect and recover endangered Mexican wolves.
“With only 114 Mexican wolves left in the wild, the government cannot take a slow and incremental approach to recovery. We need more wolves in more places, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona.”
Because the case is still in litigation, a spokesman for the USFWS said the agency cannot comment at this time.