Mexican wolf

A male Mexican gray wolf that was temporarily captured by an interagency field team during annual counts in early 2016 is released back into its home territory in the White Mountains.  

A recently released federal recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf has received harsh criticism from three of the biologists the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled together six years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to draft the same type of recovery document.

“Overoptimistic assumptions,” “flawed” and “impractical” were among the words used in the biologists' comments on the federal plan. It sets a recovery goal of 320 wolves in an area of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate-40 and another 170 wolves in northern Mexico.

The biologists were part of a nine-member science advisory group that in 2012 concluded more than double that number of wolves spread out over a much larger range would be needed to establish a self-sustaining population in the Southwest.

Their feedback stands in stark contrast to comments submitted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which complimented the federal recovery plan, saying it includes the “most current and best available data” and establishes “practical and achievable recovery criteria.”

The divergent comments indicate that even after 40 years of federal wolf recovery efforts, scientists and many conservation organizations disagree with state and federal wildlife managers on basic scientific data about the animals’ historical range, population viability and potential habitat.

In all, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft plan received nearly 100,000 comments by the Aug. 29 deadline. The Fish and Wildlife Service will review the input before coming out with a final recovery plan by a court-mandated deadline of November 2017. It will be the first update to the recovery plan since 1982 after three past attempts, all of which were unsuccessful.

FAULTY SCIENCE

Carlos Carroll, with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, Montana-based biologist Rich Fredrickson and Mike Phillips, the executive director of Turner Endangered Species Fund, were the only three members of the 2011 science team to comment on the most recent Mexican wolf recovery draft plan. With more than 60 years of experience with wolf populations between them, the biologists were united in their disapproval of the population viability modeling that underpins the federal plan.

The model is over-optimistic in its assumptions about things like the proportion of breeding females and the frequency and intensity of future disease outbreaks, Carroll and Fredrickson wrote. It also assumes continued supplemental feeding of the wolves to avoid conflicts with livestock, which is problematic and unrealistic, Phillips and Fredrickson wrote.

The Fish and Wildlife Service overestimates the amount of suitable habitat in Mexico as well, Phillips wrote. He noted that hurdles to wolf recovery across the border include a high amount of private land, abundant livestock that could lead to frequent wolf-livestock conflicts, unknown numbers of native prey and infrequently enforced wildlife protection laws.

"If the final plan is a close reflection of the draft, then I am confident in predicting that it will set the Mexican wolf adrift for decades without ever approaching the shore of recovery," he wrote.

As for the plan’s designation of wolf recovery areas only south of Interstate-40, Carroll wrote that neither Fish and Wildlife policies nor the Endangered Species Act requires an exclusive focus on historical range.

The lack of sufficient suitable habitat with low mortality risk in Mexico requires defining a broader recovery region that includes the Grand Canyon region and Southern Rockies, he wrote.

PLAN SUPPORT

Habitat in Mexico is cast as much more promising in comments submitted by Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Writing for the state wildlife agency, deVos called the Fish and Wildlife Service’s habitat analysis “state of the art” and affirmed that it shows “large areas of high quality habitat” in Mexico.

Devos also took aim at methods of genomic analysis that advocates say provide evidence that the Mexican gray wolf’s ancestors roamed north of I-40, calling them “poorly understood molecular markers.” Instead, deVos referred to a 2017 study by Game and Fish Wildlife Science Coordinator Jim Heffelfinger that the animals’ historical range was limited to southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and portions of Mexico.

When it comes to the population viability analysis that Fredrickson, Carroll and Phillips each described as flawed, deVos wrote that it represents “the most current and best available data” and “the best predictive model of future population viability.”

Game and Fish's plan includes not only redundancy in designating two populations, but also resiliency in the numerical recovery criteria that it establishes, deVos wrote.

One of the few facts that all sides agree on? At last count, the wolves’ wild population numbered at least 113, which is the highest number since the animals were first reintroduced into the forests of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico nearly two decades ago.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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