FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Federal officials have proposed more than tripling the current number of endangered Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest and greatly expanding the area they can roam.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday it would finalize a decision in January for changes to a reintroduction program that has stumbled through legal battles, illegal shootings, politics and other programs. The agency said its favored proposal aims to increase the genetic diversity of the wolves, and lessen impacts to ranchers and potential prey on tribal lands.
The wolves currently roam about 7 million acres of federal, tribal and private land in far eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. The proposal increases the number of sites where wolves could be released and eventually will allow the animals to disperse throughout Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40 to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ranchers and community leaders in rural areas have opposed expansion efforts, saying that wolves that don't find deer and elk to feed on could turn to livestock and domestic animals instead, said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.
"It's cruel to the animals because there is no prey base," she said. "They are doomed to failure."
Under the Fish and Wildlife proposal, livestock owners could kill any wolf that is biting, wounding or killing livestock on federal land. Pet owners could do the same on on-federal land. Deer and elk on tribal lands also would be protected.
Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the proposal creates a balance between growing the wolf population and the impacts that wolves might have on local communities.
The last count of wolves showed there are a minimum 83 in the wild. Wildlife officials said they would work toward managing a population of 300 to 325 wolves under the proposal that increases the habitat suitable for wolves by nearly four times what's available now. If the population exceeds that number, wolves could be relocated to Mexico, be placed in captivity or killed as a last resort, Barrett said.
"We have several options available," she said.
The target population likely will go up once the Fish and Wildlife Service develops a recovery plan, Barrett said. A coalition of environmental groups recently sued the agency for not crafting and implementing a valid recovery plan with measurable goals for recovery of the wolves in the Southwest.
The proposal to expand the territory for wolves was welcomed by environmentalists who said that wildlife managers need to do more to help the wolves repopulate. But it falls short of including the territory they wanted around the Grand Canyon and in the Southern Rocky Mountains, and short on the target population, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Putting them at 325 is still going to put them in grave danger," he said. "There's no science behind that."