Mexican gray wolves could get more room to roam in Arizona and New Mexicounder proposed federal rule changes, and the government would protect them with a new classification as an endangered subspecies of the larger gray-wolf population.
That reclassification is crucial to restoration efforts in the Southwest because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday also proposed removing Endangered Species Act protections from the broader gray-wolf population of the northern Rockies and Great Lakes. Without the reclassification, the fragile Mexican gray-wolf population also would lose protection, hampering efforts to reintroduce the endangered animals to the wild in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
The continuing protections for Mexican wolves would include new tolerance for wolves to populate forests as far north as Interstate 40 and as far south as Interstate 10.
Their current recovery area is restricted to the Blue Range straddling both states, and if packs establish themselves beyond those boundaries, they are usually captured and relocated to the recovery area.
“After 15 years of experimenting with Mexican wolf reintroduction, we are now proposing modifications that we believe improve growth and the genetic health of the overall population,” said Benjamin Tuggle, a regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
If approved later this year, the plan also would allow release of captive wolves into New Mexico’s Gila National Forest for the first time. Previously, all releases from captive breeding programs were in Arizona’s Apache National Forest, compressing the zone of new blood and of conflicts. At least 46 wolves have been shot illegally, and most shootings are unsolved.
As of the last census at the end of 2012, 75 Mexican gray wolves were in the wild. They are a smaller relative of the gray wolf, whose numbers have soared into the thousands in the northern United States. In both the northern Rockies and the Southwest, conflicts with livestock led ranchers and government trappers to target both the gray wolves and Mexican gray wolves during the 20th century.
National conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, condemned the move to delist wolves elsewhere though wolf advocates have both hopes and fears for what the plans mean for Mexican wolves.
Expanding the zone of tolerance will help wolves multiply, he said. But the zone will not help wolves that roam between I-10 and the Mexican border. If wolves chase livestock in that region, they may be shot or trapped legally.
Biologists rounded up the last wild Mexican wolves for breeding during the 1980s and started releasing their offspring into eastern Arizona in 1998. The ground available for releases was limited to about a million acres in the Apache National Forest, but the rule change would add about triple that acreage for reintroduction in New Mexico.
Because the government classified these wolves as experimental and restricted them to a core recovery zone, wildlife agents have rounded up wolves that previously established home territories beyond the Blue Range. The new rule, now available for public comment, would tolerate packs between Arizona’s two major east-west freeways. Theoretically, it means wolves could spread across the Mogollon Rim, the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau that runs through the state from the Grand Canyon to east of Show Low, Ariz.
That’s a maddening thought to hunters, including John Koleszar, vice president of the Arizona Deer Association. The state already has too few hunting opportunities, he said, and big-game groups like his donate habitat-enhancement money to boost herds, not to feed wolves.
“For elk, I put in for archery (permits) every year, and I get drawn about every eight years,” he said. “You’re telling me you want to put another top-line predator all along the Mogollon Rim? It’s wrong.”
Arizona Game and Fish Department officials said Friday that it is premature to respond to the proposal. They work with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service on wolf restoration. Larry Riley, the department’s assistant director for wildlife management, said that, in general, the state has hoped for more flexibility in both release sites and in removing problem wolves.
“We’re definitely going to be studying on this,” Riley said of the proposed rules. “There are going to be some pluses and minuses.”