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Federal wildlife officials are set to convene yet another effort to craft a recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf after three failed attempts over the past three decades.
But leaders in Utah and three other states are now attacking the credibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's science, alleging it is rigged to improperly include the Four Corners region in the recovery zone for this critically imperiled wolf subspecies.
The Utah Wildlife Board on Wednesday piled on when it finalized a letter to FWS insisting the agency reconstitute the recovery team with members who are more "neutral" than the biologists currently assigned to the task.
The team is scheduled to begin meeting next week at the COD Ranch outside Tucson, Ariz. Utah also objects to this venue, because it is has hosted meetings of conservation groups.
The states also insist on a major ground rule for the Mexican wolf recovery planning process: No consideration should be given to terrain north of Interstate 40, the freeway that cuts across Arizona and New Mexico about 130 miles south of the Utah state line.
That was the sentiment two months ago when the Utah Wildlife Board first authorized Assistant Utah Attorney General Martin Bushman to draft the letter to FWS and the Department of the Interior. A final draft was approved Wednesday, claiming the Mexican wolf's historic range lies south of Arizona's Mogollon Rim forming the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.
The complaints raised in this letter closely align with a Nov. 13 letter to FWS director Dan Ashe signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and three other governors. The four states Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona as well as Utah are "seriously troubled" by FWS' selection of "non-neutral" scientists bent on establishing the Mexican wolf outside its historic range.
"The panel as presently constituted will be driven as much or more by personal agenda than by science. This is unacceptable," the letter states. "Given that 90 percent of the subspecies' historical range is in Mexico, any serious recovery planning effort must headline a Mexico-centric approach rather than the translocation of the subspecies out of its historical range into new, previously uninhabited ranges of northern Arizona / New Mexico and southern Utah / Colorado."
FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said the agency has yet to decide how it will respond to the governors' concerns.
The letters do not name the allegedly biased scientists or identify who the states do want on the team.
The recovery team is currently comprised of Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, who has participated in prior recovery planning attempts; Peter Siminski, former mammals curator at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; Carlos Carroll of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research; Doug Smith, the project leader for the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project; Richard Fredrickson, a former Arizona State University biologist now based in Montana; and John Vucetich, a demographics expert with Michigan Technological University.
These are North America's most respected wolf biologists, said Phillips.
"I would challenge anyone to present a better body related to wolf recovery," said Phillips, who serves in the Montana Senate as a Democrat representing Bozeman. "I'm proud of the agenda I have, and that's to do my fair share to do the best science that can support a Mexican wolf recovery plan."
He contends Mexican wolves historically drifted far to the north, reaching Utah and Colorado, which served as a mixing zone for gray wolves before they were eradicated in the early 20th century. Today, fewer than 100 Mexican wolves survive in the Blue Range, a designated wolf re-introduction area spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border.
While FWS considers de-listing the gray wolf from protection, it has extended federal protection to the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies known by the scientific name Canis lupus baileyi. The animal is better known by its colloquial Spanish moniker, lobo, a name the University of New Mexico adopted for its sports teams. The northern gray wolf is C. lupus occidentalis.
Phillips contends the best science shows any plan that does not include Utah and Colorado is doomed to fail because remaining wolf habitat in Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico lacks the prey base to sustain the lobos' recovery.
In past planning, the team pegged recovery at 750 wolves spread around three populations areas that included southern Colorado and the Grand Canyon ecosystem, which extends into Utah's San Juan and Kane counties.
More important than this number, which if anything is too low to ensure recovery, are the connections between the population areas that would enable a deepening of what is now a "depauperate" gene pool, short of natural size and variety, Phillips said.
Bushman told the Utah Wildlife Board, however, that FWS is not authorized to recover a species outside its historic range. This view is endorsed by the four governors, but Phillips disputes it.
"Even if Utah is right [that Mexican wolf historic range lies south of I-40], and they are not, the [FWS] director can conclude that recovery requires going outside their historic range," the biologist said. "Climate change is reshuffling the entire deck, so much so that it's safe to conclude that historic conditions are less help for understanding the future. The [carbon-loaded] atmosphere today is unlike anything in the long sweep of human history. Historic ranges might not mean much going forward."
Phillips suspects the concept of subspecies has been overapplied to the gray wolf and joked that the subspecies that really matters is known as "Canis lupus irregardless."
The lobo is smaller than its northern brethren and believed to be the most distinct subspecies. Gray wolves were eliminated from the Rockies long before people took a strong interest in taxonomical nuances, so it is hard for anyone to say with certainty today which wolf subspecies roamed southern Utah a century ago.
What is beyond dispute is that Mexican wolves are on life support. The 80 or so remaining in the wild can all trace their lineage to seven wolves raised in a captive breeding program that rescued this subspecies from oblivion.
Unlike the Yellowstone project, the Blue Range reintroduction has yet to lead to a self-sustaining population after 17 years, probably because the animals cannot disperse or breed with large populations elsewhere, conservationists say. The Northern Rockies and Great Lakes wolves, by contrast, mix with wolf populations to the north in Canada and are generally free to disperse, although hundreds have been shot in recent years.
The governors contend allowing Mexican wolves to come north will enable them to interbreed with northern gray wolves, thus diluting their genetics.
"We are worried that Utah will become a hybridization area and wolves here won't county toward recovery," Bushman said in an interview.
Phillips says Utah and the other states make a good point, but he contends hybridization won't pose much threat to lobo genetics because northern gray wolves will never colonize southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. These wolves do disperse into these states but most leave or get killed before establishing breeding packs. Utah wildlife officials, however, believe individuals now reside in the Wasatch and Uinta mountains.
Past efforts did not result formal revised plans for the Mexican wolf, but now FWS is facing lawsuits to revise the 1982 plan.
The recovery team must include members to the states' liking if a viable plan is to be achieved, the governors contend. Phillips welcomes the debate, although he suspects the states are driving their own agenda of minimizing the reach of wolves.
"The states are saying right out of the gate, we want to declare by fiat that recovery cannot extend north," Phillips said. "Maybe it's a good idea. Maybe for the last 20 years I have been wrong."