Given that there are probably fewer than 50 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, folks were a tad surprised recently when the Arizona Game and Fish Commission threw its weight behind a plan to yank the animals from federal endangered-species protection.
The December commission vote came as congressional Republicans introduced legislation to strip away federal protection for all gray wolves in the United States.
While commissioners claim their vote was solely aimed at revitalizing the foundering 13-year-old Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program, critics smell a rat—particularly since removing wolves from endangered-species status would help put Arizona back in charge of a program it spearheaded from 2003 to 2009.
During that time, a management committee overseeing wolf reintroduction was headed by Terry Johnson, Arizona Game and Fish's endangered-species coordinator. But environmental groups filed lawsuits to have Johnson's committee disbanded, saying it allowed the removal of far too many key animals after they were accused of attacking cattle.
According to those critics, Arizona's record over that six-year stretch was more about appeasing wolf-hating ranchers than overseeing the reintroduction of a critical, native predator.
To settle the lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department agreed to dismantle the body. A new management team is now being forged—with Arizona no longer at the helm. Many consider that a godsend.
However, others do not. Jack Husted is a commissioner from the rural, northeastern Arizona community of Springerville. He argues that removing federal wolf protections will jettison endless, crippling lawsuits brought by conservation groups such as the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
The center has long contended that Endangered Species Act mandates are being loosely enforced in the rugged, ranching-dominated backcountry of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico where wolves have been released.
Husted also denies that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission harbors an agenda to gut wolf reintroduction. "We have a long history of working hard to make the wolf program work," he says. "But the federal folks are bound by interpretations of what the courts tell them, and then the lawsuits that come from the people who claim to care about wolves and wildlife."
He says those lawsuits have prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—charged with enacting endangered-species programs—to turn its back on cooperating with the states. "They are in a morass of regulations, and after 10 years, they've stabbed their partners in the back."
Those partners, says Husted, included the Arizona Game and Fish Department and area ranchers. "We were working together. And now, they are paralyzed."
But others say Game and Fish was never a boon to wolf reintroduction. Among them is Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, and author of Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.
Under Arizona Game and Fish oversight, "wolves were going down the tubes rapidly," Robinson says. "It really was much more of a 'wolf-control' program than a recovery program. Over those years, they successfully advocated for destruction of wolf after wolf."
Among the now-defunct committee's most controversial policies was "Standard Operating Procedure 13," which allowed the capture or killing of wolves that attacked cattle at least three times within a year. Robinson says that "rigid and punitive" policy resulted in the removal of genetically important wolves simply to accommodate angry ranchers.
He points to at least two occasions, in 2008 and 2009, when Arizona Game and Fish recommended the killing of an important wolf-pack alpha male in New Mexico for cattle predation. Both times, he says, New Mexico Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposed the move. The offending wolf was spared, and never attacked cattle again.
"That was another example of where Arizona Game and Fish's leadership was headed, if we had not sued," Robinson says.
According to records he provided to the Tucson Weekly, 100 wolves have been released into the wild since the program began. Of those, 11 were shot by federal wolf managers. Another 37 wolves were illegally shot, with only three of those crimes ever ending in arrests.
Despite such dismal numbers, Arizona Game and Fish Commissioner John Harris defends the state's record—including its latest stance on wolf delisting, which he insists was not a "slap" at the Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's saying that we can be party to managing (wolves). We think we can do a damn good job of it, and our constituents trust us at Arizona Game and Fish to do what is right. I don't know if they have that same trust" of federal officials.
But those constituents—specifically the ranchers and hunters—are exactly what has wolf-reintroduction supporters worried. That concern grew only deeper following creation of the new Arizona Game and Fish Commission Appointment Recommendation Board last spring. Signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, the board screens nominees to be on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. Not surprisingly, the board is also made up of hunters, along with rancher and former commissioner Sue Chilton. (See "Familiar Faces," Dec. 23.) During her time on the commission, which ended in 2005, Chilton vigorously fought against wolf reintroduction.
Whatever its agenda may be, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission's latest move toward delisting is shortsighted, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tom Buckley. "The Mexican gray wolf is one of the most—if not the most—endangered land mammals in North America. It is highly unlikely, and scientifically out of the question, to relegate recovery to just the Arizona Game and Fish Department. For one thing, that would be too small (an approach). Secondly, I don't think they have the resources to do this."
If state officials think delisting would free the program from legal attacks, they should think again, says Buckley. "Depending upon where the decision was made to actually delist, if I were a commission member, I might be concerned that it would open up the state to lawsuits."