The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly released recovery plan for endangered Mexican gray wolves is one that sportsmen and state wildlife managers “can live with,” said Tom Mackin, the Flagstaff-area representative with the Arizona Wildlife Federation, which supports hunters, anglers and wildlife-related recreation.
The plan’s goal to establish a sustainable population of 320 animals in Arizona and New Mexico is one “we think would be tolerated from a social standpoint,” Mackin said.
Reactions to the plan were much different from organizations across the Southwest that are advocates of wolf recovery. A group of 10 issued swift criticisms of the recovery document.
Among them is Emily Renn, who heads the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. The nonprofit has worked for more than a decade to return wolves to a wider range in Arizona. The recovery plan’s biggest downfall is its limitation on wolf recovery habitat to south of Interstate-40, Renn said.
“Our organization was created because all the science said this was excellent wolf habitat,” Renn said, referring to areas north of the highway. “For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to completely ignore that in the future recovery of this species is really arbitrary because there is so much science that supports it.”
A nine-member science advisory group in 2012 produced a draft recovery plan for Mexican wolves that recommended recovery habitat extend into northern New Mexico, southern Colorado and the Grand Canyon region, but it was never finalized.
The recovery plan released Wednesday estimates 70 wolves will need to be released from captivity to achieve genetic diversity targets. To reach that number, federal managers will focus “a lot” on the tactic of cross fostering as opposed to the release of adult wolves into the wild, Sherry Barrett, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, said during a media call Wednesday.
Cross fostering involves taking young wolf pups born in captivity and placing them with wild wolf litters born around the same time so they are raised in the wild. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been vocal about its support for cross fostering and in 2015 voted to stop the release of captive-raised adult wolves.
But to achieve recovery of the species, it’s not enough to depend on only cross-fostered pups, Renn said.
“There are still genetically valuable adults wolves in the captive population,” Renn said. “It’s a matter of getting the most valuable wolves into the wild population and not eliminating any release option to be able to do that."
But adult wolves released from captivity tend to cause more problems, which makes cross-fostering a better alternative, Mackin said.
Expanding wolf habitat north of Interstate-40 also poses potential complications with tribal boundaries in northern Arizona and northern New Mexico, Mackin said in support of the federal plan's current habitat boundary.
He was less supportive of the recovery plan’s $180 million price tag.
“I guess what they're presenting is the Cadillac plan or perhaps the Mercedes plan, but perhaps we need the Chevrolet or Subaru plan to see what we can do to successfully bring these animals up to a delisting level but not spend ($180 million),” Mackin said.
An increased entrance fee to the Grand Canyon could harm tourism and economic development in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, the mayor and city council fear.
The mayor and council drafted public comments to submit to the National Park Service as well as a resolution opposing the fee increase that will be finalized at the council's Dec. 5 meeting.
The action came in response to business owners asking the council for support in opposing the increase, with many businesses and tour operators claiming the increase will hurt their businesses.
In October, the National Park Service proposed increasing the entrance fees at 17 national parks, including the Grand Canyon. The fee to enter the park is $30 and is proposed to be raised to $70.
“While the increase to $70 may not affect those that spend thousands of dollars to stay within the park, this fee increase could negatively impact our local residents and their families,” the council said in the statement. “The proposed fee increase to $70 would price out many of our residents from enjoying the Canyon.”
The National Park Service has also proposed increasing the fees for ground-based tour operators in the parks. Beginning in 2019, commercial tour fees will have three components: an application fee, a management fee and an entrance fee.
In January of that year, the Park Service will require a $300 application fee annually for tour operators and a $5-per-client management fee based on the amount of clients that used the tour operator throughout the year.
Then in May 2019, commercial tour entrance fees will be subject to charges based on the size of the vehicle used to transport customers, ranging from a sedan to a motor coach carrying more than 57 people. Parks that only charge a fee per person, instead of per vehicle, will continue to charge a per-person rate.
The proposal also includes an increased entrance fee for peak season, which for the Grand Canyon will be May through October. During the peak season, prices for tour operators will increase between $60 and $600 per vehicle above the off-peak season price, depending on vehicle size.
The draft statement for the council’s comments points out that many Flagstaff businesses and employees depend on tourism.
“This fee hike could harm tourism and economic development in the City of Flagstaff and surrounding areas,” the statement reads. “The Grand Canyon is the second most visited park in the country with nearly six million visitors each year. Many Canyon visitors come to our city, stay in our hotels, shop at our local businesses and make the short drive from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park. Tourism is the lifeblood of our economy.”
Many residents of Flagstaff would also not be able to afford to visit the Grand Canyon with the fee increase, the council says in the statement.
“We as a Council believe that the national parks and monuments are assets held in the public trust,” the draft version of the comments reads in part. “Therefore, it is the role of the federal government to invest in the maintenance of parks using existing funds.”
The comments were created for the council meeting Nov. 21 in order to meet the original submission deadline of Nov. 23. However, the National Park Service extended the comment period to Dec. 22, allowing the council to deliberate the comments more and receive input from city commissions and boards.
The council will be discussing the finalized resolution and public comments at its meeting on Tuesday.