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.