TUCSON—Today, a judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) to go back to the drawing board on its deeply flawed 2015 Mexican wolf management rule. The court rejected the Service’s distortion of science to fit the political goals of increasing allowable killing, setting a population cap, and limiting the wolves’ range. The judge found the rule further imperiled the endangered species, and the Service illegally failed to reconsider the wolves’ designation as a “non-essential” population.
Reading like something out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the January 2015 final rule refused to consider the only wild population of Mexican wolves as “essential” to the recovery of Mexican wolves in the wild. The rule also arbitrarily capped the population at a level far below what scientists consider necessary for recovery, excluded the wolves from native habitat in northern Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, and allowed more killing of Mexican wolves by federal agents and private landowners over livestock conflicts. The judge rejected each of these components of the rule.
“Unfortunately, politics supplants wildlife biology in key parts of the Service’s Mexican wolf reintroduction rule,” said Matthew Bishop with the Western Environmental Law Center. “It’s amazing we had to go to court to prove that population caps, more killing, and less territory harms Mexican wolves, but the court made the right decision today.”
“Banishing Mexican wolves from their native habitats to appease political interests is the latest mistake in the Service’s long history of mismanagement of Mexican wolf recovery,” said Christopher Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “As the court held today, the only wild population of Mexican wolves is clearly essential to the species’ survival and recovery.”
The Service’s Mexican wolf recovery plan so egregiously worked against Mexican wolf recovery, the scientists whose research was used to justify the policies wrote a letter disavowing the plan: “We are concerned that several of these citations misstate, misinterpret or provide incorrect context for the results and implications of our studies. Most of these problematic statements were not present in the draft [environmental impact statement], but occur for the first time in the final EIS.”
The court held the Service failed to follow the best available science: “…[T]he best available science consistently shows that recovery requires consideration of long-term impacts, particularly the subspecies’ genetic health. Moreover, this case is unique in that the same scientists that are cited by the agency publicly communicated their concern that the agency misapplied and misinterpreted findings in such a manner that the recovery of the species is compromised. To ignore this dire warning was an egregious oversight by the agency.” (Opinion at p. 31)
“Mexican wolves have struggled for almost a century largely because of human efforts to eradicate the species,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “These embattled, iconic animals shouldn’t also have to struggle against the very agency tasked with saving them, and we’re extremely pleased that the court agrees.”
The rule instituted an unprecedented and scientifically unsound population cap of 300-325 Mexican wolves—something the original plan expressly disavowed. The best science shows that at least 750 wolves spread across three populations is necessary for recovery. The court rejected the population cap, finding “[t]he rule’s provision for a single, isolated population of 300-325 wolves, with one to two effective migrants per generation, does not further the conservation of the species and is arbitrary and capricious.” (Opinion at p. 26)
Also rejected by the court, the management rule allowed expanded killing of Mexican wolves due to livestock conflicts. The rule’s language was extremely vague and subjective, referring to “unacceptable impacts” to “wild ungulate herds,” opening the door to widespread killing of endangered wolves. The court ruled the expanded killing provisions “do not contain adequate protection for the loss of genetically valuable wolves.” (Opinion at p. 28)
While the final rule expanded the boundaries of the area in which Mexican wolves would be allowed to roam, it banished Mexican wolves from important areas of native habitat, cutting them off arbitrarily north of Interstate 40. The best available science shows wolves must recolonize areas in the Southern Rockies and Grand Canyon to recover. The court criticized this arbitrary boundary noting the Service itself acknowledged the necessity of wolves dispersing into territories north of I-40 for the long-term recovery of the species.
“Friends of Animals is thrilled by this decision,” said Wildlife Law Program Director Michael Harris. “It is both an important victory for Mexican wolves, as well as recognition that restoring North American carnivores is vital to the health and restoration of our wild places and ecosystems.”
The Mexican wolf is the smallest, one of the rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf. The species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, but recovery efforts have largely foundered because the Service has yet to implement scientifically recommended recovery actions.