Conservationists And Ranchers Will Sue For Restoration Of Mexican Wolves In Southwest

(10/03/1996) - An unusual coalition of conservationists, sportsmen and ranchers today announced they will sue the government to expedite reintroduction of endangered Mexican wolves into their former habitat in the American Southwest.

Defenders of Wildlife and 26 other diverse local and national groups sent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) a 60-day notice of intent to sue. The groups emphasize that they represent hundreds of thousands of citizens supportive of the return of the Mexican wolf, which is among the world's rarest and most critically endangered land mammals.

Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife, underscores that, "Implementation of a Mexican wolf recovery plan approved more than a decade ago is being held hostage to politics. The public wants wolves, science supports their return, and the ecosystem needs them. There is no legitimate reason for further delay."

If FWS does not act within the 60-day period, these prospective plaintiffs will include, among others, the Arizona League of Conservation Voters; Defenders of Wildlife; Hunters and Fishers for Environmental Ethics; National Audubon Society; Preserve Arizona's Wolves; Sierra Club; and rancher Jim Winder, who is from the proposed area in New Mexico where wolves would be reintroduced. "Although we have been patient and vigorously supportive of the Fish and Wildlife Service, we are gravely concerned that they are not fulfilling their responsibilities as directed by Congress and the court," explains the coalition's attorney, Grove Burnett of the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos, New Mexico.

The lawsuit points to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's violation of the Endangered Species Act and a violation of the Service's own settlement agreement from a civil action against them in 1990. The New Mexico District Court in 1993 (Wolf Action Group, et al. vs. United States) directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to produce a timeline calling for a final environmental impact statement by March 1995, and the release of wolves by July 1996. Burnett points out "the agency remains delinquent in fulfilling the two most important requirements of the Agreement, releasing the final EIS and accomplishing the reintroduction of Mexican wolves to the wild."

A year and a half later, the final EIS has not been issued and no plans have been made for release of the wolves. In fact, the Interior Department is making no public statements on Mexican wolf release despite internal meetings on the situation.

"This most recent setback is inexcusable," says Bobbie Holaday, Executive Director of Preserve Arizona's Wolves. "We've been patient for years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stalled and delayed the program at every turn and is now refusing to even discuss it with the interested public. We are deeply concerned about the wolf and now have no choice but to reopen the lawsuit; it's the right thing to do."

Before the advent of livestock ranching, Mexican wolves were prominent throughout the wildlands of the Southwest. In the early 1900s, a livestock-industry-driven campaign evolved into a federal extermination program and resulted in the wolf's near extinction. In 1976 Mexican wolves were listed as endangered and the last few were live- captured and entered into a breeding program to prevent them from disappearing entirely.

The Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, approved in 1982, calls for a captive population of at least 100 wolves followed by reintroductions to the wild. Currently there are 140 Mexican wolves in captivity. The wolves and a large coalition of wolf supporters are awaiting a final decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, some claim, is being delayed for political reasons.

Dave Henderson, National Audubon Society representative in Santa Fe, said, "This is the second civil action that has become necessary to prevent them from backpaddling on recovery." Henderson notes, "There are real costs when government fails to make decisions in a timely manner. In this case, the biggest cost comes at the expense of Mexican wolves, and they simply can't afford it."

Advocates point out that the public has repeatedly demonstrated through dozens of meetings and opinion surveys that the vast majority of urban and rural residents are not opposed to the return of wolves.

Rancher Jim Winder, who lives and ranches next to the proposed release site explains, "The reintroduction of a large predator such as a wolf will force ranchers to manage their livestock more intensively. This will improve range conditions and profitability for most operations...if the public wants wolves, then I will find a way to co-exist with wolves." Recognizing the ecological and economic value of wolves, rancher Winder has signed on as party to the wolf-coalition's lawsuit. Other ranchers in the area have written letters supporting the intent of the citizen action and have expressed strong support for the return of wolves.

Defenders of Wildlife Southwest Representative Craig Miller notes that,"Despite some localized opposition, most responsible ranchers are not opposed to wolf recovery as long as they're allowed to protect their livestock. We also recognize that some livestock losses will occur and we're prepared to assume financial responsibility."

Defenders operates a compensation fund which reimburses ranchers for verified losses to wolves, and an incentive program that rewards land-owners when pups are born on private property. Defenders is now finalizing plans for a market-based program designed to help Arizona and New Mexico ranchers live with and benefit from wolves, once they're released.

The "wolf country" certification program requires ranchers to raise their livestock in a manner compatible with wolves and other predators while cooperating with the Fish and Wildlife Service in wolf monitoring activities. In exchange, Defenders will assist ranchers in marketing the ecologically sensitive "wolf country" certified beef for a premium at local restaurants and markets.

"Ranchers and conservationists have proven their willingness to cooperate for the benefit of wolves and the ecosystem; what we're asking for now is cooperation from the Fish and Wildlife Service" states Miller.

Biologists claim that prolonged captivity may reduce the wolves' chances of success in the wild. Jeff Williamson, Executive Director of the Phoenix Zoo, explains, "It is important that the Fish and Wildlife Service act with diligence to facilitate the reintegration of Mexican wolves into their historic range. Those of us who care for these animals in captivity cannot assure that we can maintain them in perpetuity and we need the help of the government to bring to fruition the law of the land and to assure biological diversity and environmental health over the long term."



Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x220 (Media)
Craig Miller, 520-578-9334 (SouthWest)
Jim Winder, 505-267-4227
Dave Henderson, 505-983-4609