Multiple conservation groups have filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, citing concerns for the Mexican gray wolves. The groups, which include WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Network, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to create an adequate rule that provides enough protections for the endangered species.
The service published a new rule to the Federal Register July 1, which will take effect August 1. The new rule is another iteration of a 2015 rule established by the service which was overturned by a federal court in 2018. The group’s concerns regarding the wolves include them being labeled as nonessential by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their limited genetic diversity. In order to sue the agency again, the groups must file a 60-day notice to allow time for the agency to alter their regulations.
“In 2018, the federal judge ruled the rule was arbitrary and capricious because it failed to further the conservation of Mexican gray wolves for the long term,” Chris Smith, an author for WildEarth Guardians, said.
In addition to the nonessential label and limited genetic diversity, the current land designated for the wolves is only a portion of the historical land they once inhabited, according to Smith.
“(The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is) artificially limiting the area that they have to recover and that … sets them back in terms of recovery… (The service), in their newest rule, failed to expand that boundary. It's clearly a political boundary; not any kind of scientific, ecological or biological (boundary),” Smith said.
The nonessential label is a distinction for endangered animals which establishes that there is enough of a species in captivity that, if it was to be wiped out, it could be reintroduced, according to Emily Renn, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Project. However, she doesn't think this is true for the Mexican gray wolves, partly because she believes the Service — who is in charge of reintroductions — doesn’t have enough captive wolves to release to prevent extinction.
Smith said that when the federal government began working to protect the animals, they only had seven wolves to rebuild the population; all current Mexican gray wolves are descended from these seven. This lack of genetic diversity creates issues for the wolves when it comes to surviving in the wild, according to Smith.
“Diversity creates resilience, and these wolves don't have that right now. And so, the federal government should be releasing more wolves that are currently in captivity into the wild to kind of bolster that genetic health of the wild population,” Smith said.
Greta Anderson, the deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project, wishes that the Fish and Wildlife Service would use reproductive success to measure genetic recovery. She also said that inbreeding can lead to many issues and possibly extinction within a species.
“Inbreeding leads to all kinds of genetic bottlenecks, or you start to see more health issues, health problems. You start to see decreased reproduction; fewer (and) fewer offspring survive, and it's a downward spiral towards extinction,” Anderson said.
The continued effects of climate change are also reasons to further genetic diversity, according to Anderson.
“It's really important that you have animals with the capacity to adapt right. You're gonna want animals that can survive and thrive under different habitat scenarios in the future. So you need to maintain the genetic diversity now for adaptation to future realities,” Anderson said.
Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, talked about the impact this loss would have on people who would no longer be able to experience and see this animal, recounting a time he heard one howl himself.
“Just to be able to have the experience: to go backpacking, for example, or camping and hearing a wolf howl and knowing that you're in a wild place. If you've ever had a chance to hear that, you won't forget it. And I hope that all New Mexicans have a chance to hear that,” Allison said.
The cultural significance of the Mexican gray wolf remains large, with the wolf serving as the University of New Mexico’s mascot and the namesake behind the Daily Lobo publication. The loss and need for protection, Allison said, is significant.
“I think we'd be a poor country to have a species as majestic as the Mexican wolf go extinct or become exasperated. And I just think we're a bigger, better country than that and that we’re far richer to have wolves in New Mexico and Arizona and the Southwest than we would (be) without wolves,” Allison said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment.
Madeline Pukite is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maddogpukite