Group Challenges Wolf Recovery Program

An environmental group went to court Thursday in an effort to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand a program to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico and Arizona.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- An environmental group went to court Thursday in an effort to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand a program to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico and Arizona.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has offices in both states, alleged in a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., that Fish and Wildlife has refused to implement recommendations of a scientific panel that reviewed the program.

The "hostility toward science is undermining the wolf recovery program," the center said.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Vickie Fox of the agency's Albuquerque office said federal officials haven't had a chance to review the lawsuit and do not in general comment on pending litigation.

However, she added: "Making critical management decisions for a program that has complex social impacts while ensuring that wolves return to their natural world takes time, and the service does not take its decision-making process lightly. It is committed to the cooperative effort for recovery of Mexican wolves in the wild."

Federal biologists began releasing wolves on the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1998 to re-establish the species in part of its historic range after it had been hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s.

The program encompasses 4.4 million acres of the Gila and Apache Sitgreaves national forests on the Arizona-New Mexico border and the 1.6 million-acre White Mountain Apache reservation.

The lawsuit seeks to force Fish and Wildlife to expand the area where wolves are allowed and to permit them to be released directly onto the Gila. Currently, wolves initially are released only in Arizona.

The lawsuit also wants ranchers who graze livestock on public land to take responsibility for disposing of carcasses to reduce the likelihood that wolves will become used to feeding on livestock.

The lawsuit said successful wolf recovery programs in the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes are not saddled with "such devastating and politically motivated limits."

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in March 2004 asking Fish and Wildlife to take those steps. The agency has not done so, and the lawsuit seeks to force the changes.

David Parsons, a retired Fish and Wildlife official who coordinated the wolf recovery program from 1991 to 1999, said Thursday that the program's guidelines aren't leading to the species' recovery.

Parsons said he's the architect of the rule that's not working.

When the rule was devised, the agency was under pressure to take into account various interest groups, especially the livestock industry, he said. Concerns from that industry and the states led to concessions in the program _ boundaries, limits on where animals could be released and agreements to remove wolves that killed livestock, he said.

Parsons said the species is not recovering because of the flexibility built into the rule. But, he said, "you can't set up a rule that's so lenient it doesn't lead to recovery."

The program originally projected that there would be 100 wolves in the wild by now, but there are only about half that number _ and only because new wolves are being released, Parsons said. The program originally projected that releases would stop in 2002 and the population in the wild would take care of itself.

A review of the program, released in January, recommended that the wolves' range be expanded. An Arizona Game & Fish Department official said at the time that the current area is not sufficient for 100 wolves.

The five-year review of the program sent 37 recommendations to Fish and Wildlife Service officials.

"Recovering wolves is not rocket science," said Michael Robinson, carnivore conservation coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It just takes respect for biology and some political will."

Source: Associated Press

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