WASHINGTON – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that it will not extend special protection to Arizona’s gray wolf population, known as the Mexican gray wolf.
The announcement was a response to petitions from conservationists who sought to reclassify the Mexican gray wolf as an “endangered subspecies” or “distinct population segment.” The request was aimed at protecting Mexican gray wolves should the government decide to take all other wolves off the endangered species list.
The decision to not reclassify the Mexican gray wolf population “doesn’t change anything right now,” said Eva Sargent, director of the Southwest program for Defenders of Wildlife. But she expects the government to publish a new nationwide plan for gray wolves within “the next few months” and said it is difficult to predict what that plan will do.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do. They might delist them everywhere, or just in certain states or regions,” Sargent said.
“We need to make sure that wolves are protected until they are recovered, particularly the very rare Mexican wolf, with only about 50 individuals in the wild in the entire world,” she said.
Most gray wolves are found in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, said Rick Sayers, division chief of the endangered species program at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wolves in each of those areas have been taken off the endangered species list due to their recovery in recent decades, he said.
The gray wolf population in Wyoming is the most recent group to be taken off the list. As of Oct. 1, the once-endangered animals are now fair game for hunters there.
By contrast, the Mexican gray wolf population is not recovering as quickly, said Chris Bagnoli, interagency field team leader for the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project.
The department estimated that there were at least 58 Mexican gray wolves last year in their range of Arizona and western New Mexico.
The original goal for Mexican gray wolf recovery, set in 1982, was to have 100 wolves in the wild. But Bagnoli said that goal is being re-evaluated because having 100 wolves would not necessarily mean the population is “fully recovered,” or able to be taken off the endangered species list.
“There’s a lot of heated discussions about it,” Bagnoli said of the debate over the new recovery target. “You have to maintain recovery levels, but we would like to reach a point where it can be managed like every other species.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service still has the power to reclassify the Mexican gray wolf at any time. Tuesday’s Federal Register notice said the Service is still reviewing “appropriate conservation status of all gray wolves … and we may revise the current listing.”
If the service decides to “delist” the overall wolf population, Mexican gray wolves would no longer be protected, unless the government exercised its authority to reclassify them.
Sayers, of Fish and Wildlife, said he cannot predict whether the service will change the status of the general wolf population. But Sargent said she expects the decision on delisting the rest of the wolf population to be made by early next year, increasing the urgency for action on Mexican gray wolves.
“Mexican gray wolves need to be protected wherever they are found,” she said.