Mexican gray wolf plan needs updating

January 14, 2009 5:52:30 AM PST
Federal wildlife officials admit in a new assessment that the plan guiding their efforts to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to its former glory in the Southwest is nearly three decades old and in need of an update.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a conservation assessment of the Mexican wolf on Friday. The public has until March 10 to review the draft document and submit comments.

The agency said litigation over the status of gray wolves in other parts of the country has prevented it from creating a new recovery plan for the Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf.

However, Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Benjamin Tuggle said the assessment will provide the most up-to-date scientific information on the beleaguered wolf.

"It will help to inform the many other components of our conservation efforts for the Mexican wolf, including captive management, reintroduction and recovery planning and implementation," Tuggle said in a statement.

Environmentalists are calling the assessment "a substitute for action."

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been pushing for reforms in wolf management for years, said Tuesday the report contains valuable information about the Mexican wolf but fails to set new policies.

"To think that this effort could have gone to something that helped the wolves, it's very frustrating," he said. "Frankly, I think it's one more step by the Fish and Wildlife Service that will continue to increase cynicism about the agency and its ability to rise above disfunction and actually recover the Mexican wolf."

The Mexican wolf was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s. In 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million acre-plus territory interspersed with forests, private land and towns.

Biologists had hoped to have at least 100 wolves in the wild by now; the population is estimated at around 50.

The current recovery plan was completed in 1982 - 16 years before any wolves were released in the Southwest.

In the assessment, federal officials say that although the recovery plan was instrumental in guiding the inception of the wolf reintroduction, it does not provide any long-range guidance.

Environmentalists have petitioned the agency to revise the plan, saying it hampers recovery efforts by saying little about how to manage wolves in the wild.

The recovery program also has drawn criticism from the ranching community, which complains that the Fish and Wildlife Service isn't doing enough to protect livestock or to keep wolves from coming too close to homes and schools.

Despite the number of wolves in the wild, federal officials say they have had some success in securing the Mexican wolf from extinction.

But Robinson argued that the wolf is still in trouble.

"The question is how do we go forward," he said. "We hope we're going to see real action and not just more spinning of wheels."