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Wolf expansion plan needs more details

Wolf expansion plan needs more details

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If there’s a more volatile topic in wildlife management circles than wolf reintroduction, we haven’t come across it.

Which is why it’s unfathomable that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would publish in the Federal Register a detailed proposal for expanding the range of the endangered Mexican gray wolf into settled areas of Arizona and New Mexico without meeting first with affected communities.

And just what are those communities? Picture the map of those two states with I-40 running across the top and I-10 across the bottom. Everything in between is where wolves would be allowed to roam, even if they are outside their designated recovery area.

That would be a big departure from the current policy, which captures and returns the wolves to their relatively small release zone in the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

The reason, as described by Fish and Wildlife in the proposal, is that wolves need much more room to sustain separate packs than they currently have been given. Further, the dispersal will promote greater genetic diversity and hence a healthier species.

We aren’t wolf experts, so we’ll leave the details of such a plan to wildlife biologists. But we’ll note that the plan has taken immediate heat from two factions: ranchers who want to limit the wolves’ range as much as possible, and wolf supporters who say the expansion is in the wrong place — it should be north of the Grand Canyon, not south.

As for the millions of other people who live in the proposed new wolf zone, their reaction has been muted mainly because they haven’t heard about it. As we noted at the beginning, Fish and Wildlife hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to publicize the plan.

If they had, we imagine that officials in Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque — all cities with neighborhoods within the new wolf range — would have weighed in or at least convened some public meetings. And then there are the dozens of small cities that also would be affected, including Flagstaff.

At the least, Fish and Wildlife owes residents of these communities some answers to questions like how often they’d anticipate that wolves establishing new territories would roam into suburbs and other settled areas, how they would interact with pet dogs in particular, and what tactics and strategies could be employed to keep those human-wolf contacts to a minimum.

They also owe wolf enthusiasts a detailed answer to their question: Why stop at I-40? A look at the map, at least in Arizona, shows far more wilderness north of the interstate than south of it, or at least north of the Grand Canyon. If the wolves in the new zone can cross Interstate 17 safely, surely they can cross I-40, too.

Instead, Fish and Wildlife has opened a 90-day comment period on the proposal without supplying enough information for informed discussion. That has ceded the field both to the alarmists and the pie-in-the-sky wolf lovers rather than focus on what is realistic and healthy for wolves and humans alike.

As we reported last week, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission has told its staff to begin meeting with the Fish and Wildlife counterparts to at least learn more about the wolf expansion plan. But that’s really not enough. If Fish and Wildlife is serious about such a proposal, it owes the residents of the new zone a lot more details, and soon.

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