Litigation claims hybrid wolves are ESA violation

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Feds defend wolf program

By Tom Jackson King, Eastern Arizona Courier Managing Editor

6/13/02

A claim by rural Arizona and New Mexico residents, ranchers and outfitters that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the Endangered Species Act by introducing Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest has been challenged by a spokesperson for the agency.

Elizabeth Slown of USFWS said that while her agency doesn't comment on pending litigation, she said the assertion that putting wolves into an area where they could interbreed with hybrid wolves/dogs is unfounded because "these are genetically surplus wolves. A lot of things could happen to them and not endanger the species."

In short, Slown asserts that even if some of the 19 living radio-collared wolves were to interbreed with hybrids, the federal agency wouldn't be violating the ESA because the loss of that wolf or its pups would not be an "unlawful take" in terms of the federal law.

"The Mexican wolves we release into the wild are an experimental population. They call them surplus wolves. If something happens to these wolves in the wild, the population of Mexican gray wolves will still be viable," Slown said.

However, attorneys Karen Budd-Falen and Richard W. Walden of the Budd-Falen Law Offices claimed the opposite in an April 9 letter to Interior Secretary Gail Norton and USFWS Director Steve Williams.

"The existence of the current hybrid population confirms that some form of interbreeding has already taken place between the species. The release of the 'pure' Mexican wolves into the area occupied by this hybrid population will lead to further hybridization and a dilution of the Mexican wolf gene pool. Such hybridization will retard the recovery of the species," the attorneys claim.

"To avoid violating the ESA, the FWS must, before releasing the 'experimental population' of Mexican wolves into the Gila Wilderness area, either: (1) remove all wolves/hybrids, including previously released Mexican wolves, from the area; or (2) conduct studies . . . to determine whether the wolves/hybrids present in the area are close enough genetically to the Mexican wolf so as to be protected by the ESA. Only by taking these actions can the FWS adequately determine that the 'experimental population' scheduled to be released into the Gila Wilderness area will further the conservation of the Mexican wolf species," the letter claims.

Dozens of Mexican gray wolves have been released by USFWS into Apache National Forest in Arizona and the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, as part of a five-year, $9 million program to reintroduce up to 100 wolves into the federal forests. Environmentalists and wolf biologists argue the forests need the return of such a "keystone predator" as the wolf in order to have a healthier forest environment.

David Parsons, the former director of the USFWS program and now a board member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the hybrid problem raised by the rural coalition is not as important as suggested.

"I think it's a relatively minor issue. I believe one of the most important things the program could do is to boost the number of wolves out there," Parsons said.

When asked if he supported the agency's plan to euthanize, or kill, any hybrid pup that may have been born to the Pipestem Pack, Parsons supported the decision.

"It would be a pollution of the gene pool (to let them live). The program is trying to preserve the original Mexican gray wolf and the genes it carries. They represent thousands and thousands of years of a wolf living in that area," he said.

"I believe the rule would allow for euthanizing any hybrids in the population, which would include those pups."

Parsons also challenged the rural coalition's argument that interbreeding would lead to an "incidental take" of the pure-breed wolves. He said such an interpretation is not among the definitions in the Final EIS that was filed on the wolf program.

Stephen Capra, Southwest media coordinator for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the rural coalition's effort was just a delaying game intended to delay more wolf releases.

"It's a smoke screen. This lawsuit seems like another clever way to prevent the reintroduction of the wolves. The lawsuit in essence is trying to reduce the credibility of a government agency (USFWS)," Capra said.

"Over the years, the agency has had a track record of protecting endangered species. They've done an admirable job of protecting endangered species. I believe they've bent over backward to work with the affected groups," he said.

As for the issue of hybrids interbreeding with pure-breed wolves, Capra said, "It's not as important as getting a sustainable population of wolves back into the wild."

Capra said he suspects that once the Mexican gray wolves outnumber any hybrids, the wild wolf population will establish itself and not interbreed with the hybrids.

However, the rural coalition attorneys argue otherwise in their lawsuit notice letter.

"Interbreeding between hybrids and listed species can result in the dilution, or elimination, of the listed species' gene pool. Additionally, the offspring of the interbreeding between hybrids and listed species are generally larger, more vigorous and more adaptive than their purebred parents. This can result in the offspring taking over the essential habitat of the protected parent species and jeopardizing the protected species' continued existence," the attorneys said.

Members of the rural coalition include the Coalition of Arizona and New Mexico Counties, Gila Forest Permittees, Grant County Cattlegrowers, Public Lands Council, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, New Mexico Guide and Outfitters and Southwest Grazers.

The 60-day notice period in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could make the changes demanded by the rural group has expired. It remains to be seen if the group's attorney's will proceed with filing a lawsuit against the agency or whether a negotiated agreement will be reached between the rural plaintiffs and USFWS.
 

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