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Court overturns restraining order on Mexican wolf releases

Dept. of INTERIOR, Wolves

May 1, 2017

Western Livestock Journal, page 16

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s temporary restraining order that was preventing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from releasing Mexican wolves in New Mexico without the state’s permission. As of the appellate court’s ruling on April 25, the federal government is free to continue releasing captivebred Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico—for now.

But the federal-statebalance argument over the struggling wolf program is far from over. The ruling is just one step in an ongoing case filed last June by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) against USFWS. The NMDGF is challenging USFWS’ authority to release the wolves, which are considered “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), without obtaining the state-required permits to do so.

“New Mexico state law continues to prohibit the release of imported animals in the state,” said Lance Cherry, a NMDGF spokesman, in an email to WLJ, “and federal law requires that the federal government comply with state permit requirements prior to releasing wildlife.”

He said New Mexico’s case will continue to move forward. Additional details about the challenge can be found in a September 2016 written statement from the NMDGF Director Alexandra Sandoval to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.

“[W]hile no one single factor is to blame for the lack of success recovering the Mexican wolf,” wrote Sandoval, “one factor looms larger than others, the [USFWS’] failure to cooperate with the states.”

Notably, the NMDGF’s challenge is being supported by eight amicus curiae briefs, including one filed by 18 states. The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau are also supporting it.

Hoping for change

WLJ spoke to Caren Cowan, executive director of the NMCGA. She was hopeful that the new administration will “take a hard look” at the Mexican wolf program. She said that despite their relatively low numbers (last count was 113 in the wild) the wolves have been a source of hardship for the ranching community.

Indeed, back in July 2016 the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General released a report concluding that in New Mexico, USFWS was mishandling nuisance wolves and stonewalling ranchers’ attempts at acquiring compensation for depredated livestock.

Compared to past administrations, President Donald Trump’s administration could be a different animal when it comes to wolves. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, a former congressman for Montana, is on record as having voted multiple times to delist the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf.

More moving parts

Cowan said the 10th Circuit ruling was just one of many moving parts regarding the wolf. For example, after speaking to WLJ she was about to walk into a court hearing regarding the wolf’s “experimental population status,” which will affect the size and location of “wolf zones” and ranchers’ ability to deal with problem wolves.

Additionally, she said she “has it on good authority” that USFWS could be releasing a recovery plan in the next 60 days. The lack of a recovery plan has been another source of litigation, and last year a federal judge ordered USFWS to come up with a plan by the end of November 2017.

While Cowan was skeptical that the recovery plan would be palatable to the livestock industry or the states, she did acknowledge that a recovery plan is necessary.

“We need a population goal before we can get these wolves delisted,” she told WLJ. “Until then, there’s no limit to how much they can multiply—and still have ESA protections that make it hard, if not impossible, to live with them.”

Sandoval’s statement to Congress echoed the need for a recovery goal. “Given the lack of current measurable and objective recovery criteria, New Mexico remains in the dark about important recovery questions—how many wolves constitute a recovered population and where these wolves will occur. Forty years into the program, New Mexico should not be as in the dark on these issues as it is.”

— Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, any copyrighted material herein is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

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