Utah officials: Mexican wolf is ‘bullet’ that could destroy West

By BRIAN MAFFLY | The Salt Lake Tribune

The effort to return the wolves to the wild in New Mexico and Arizona has been hampered by illegal shootings, court battles, complaints from ranchers who have lost livestock and pets to the wolves, and concerns by environmentalists over the way the reintroduction program has been managed.

As federal wildlife officials begin another effort to revise a recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf after three failed attempts over the past two decades, Utah Wildlife Board Chairman John Bair says that no evidence will ever convince him that Mexican wolves should be allowed in Utah.

“People want to use the wolf as the silver bullet to kill the culture of the West,” said Bair, a gifted auctioneer and self-proclaimed “Mormon redneck” from Springville. “There is no need to have them here other than those political reasons.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists facilitating Mexican wolf recovery planning are scheduled to meet next week at the COD Ranch outside Tucson, Ariz., with state representatives and other stakeholders.

Leaders in Utah, as well as Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, are attacking the credibility of FWS’s science, alleging it is rigged to improperly include the Four Cornersregion in the recovery zone for this critically imperiled wolf subspecies. The states also object to the venue for next week’s meeting because it is has hosted meetings of conservation groups.

The Utah Wildlife Board on Wednesday piled on when it dispatched a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, arguing that directing wolf recovery toward Utah “is simply bad policy, bad science, bad for the Mexican wolf, and bad for the states strapped with the burden of hosting protected wolf populations.”

But a key scientist on the recovery team and Utah wildlife advocates say Utah is dead wrong. Officials are turning their back on the best wolf science and engaging in political interference to thwart an effective recovery of Mexican wolves, whose numbers in the wild have stagnated at around 100, said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.

Bair argued sportsmen like him learned a bitter lesson from the successful northern wolf re-introduction, which has led to the decimation of elk and deer herds in Idaho and Montana, he said.

“We know how wolf recovery turns out. You reach a goal and it moves a little further and a little further,” he said. His letter to Jewell suggests that the “introduction” of Mexican wolves in Utah would impact big-game herds, which support $34.5 million in hunting license revenue.

In his presentation to the wildlife board, Assistant Attorney General Marty Bushman said the recovery team holds “an ideology that promotes expanding the Mexican wolf outside their historic range.”

The wildlife board unanimously approved the letter Bushman drafted at its request following its October meeting. The complaints it raises align with a Nov. 13 letter to FWS director Dan Ashe signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the three other governors. The four states are “seriously troubled” by FWS’s selection of “non-neutral” scientists to guide recovery.

“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.”

Scientists guiding the recovery effort must include people to the states’ liking if a viable plan is to be achieved, the governors contend. Neither letter names the allegedly biased scientists or identifies who the states do want on the team.

The states also insist on a major ground rule for the 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.

FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said the agency has yet to decide how it will respond to the governors’ concerns.

Recovery team member Mike 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 and is too fragmented to sustain the wolves’ recovery.

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, said Phillips, who has participated in past recovery planning attempts and is the director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Today, fewer than 100 Mexican wolves survive in the Blue Range, a designated wolf re-introduction area spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border.

The recovery team is also comprised of 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, Phillips said.

“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.”

While FWS considers de-listing the gray wolf from protection, it has listed 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.

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 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 and Robinson reject 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,” Phillips 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.”

Utah officials fear the state could become a hybridization area where wolves won’t count toward Mexican wolf recovery and it will become impossible to de-list the subspecies even if they proliferate, Bushman told the board.

That’s a “bogus issue,” according Robinson.

“There were never hard lines separating [Mexican and northern wolf ranges]; there was always an intergradation where their ranges overlapped,” he told the board. Isolation is the key threat to Mexican wolf survival, not hybridization with northern wolves, which could actually improve genetic rigor, wildlife advocates argue.

FWS is now facing lawsuits to revise its 1982 plan. States were denied “the necessary opportunities to shape both the planning process and the ultimate plan,” and that’s why the revision efforts failed, the governors’ letter states.

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.”