If an endangered Mexican gray wolf wanders into the northeast corner of Yavapai County after Valentine's Day, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials will let it stay.
A new rule that Fish and Wildlife is publishing today will take effect on Feb. 15, and it eventually expands by 21-fold the areas where the wolves can roam in Arizona and New Mexico without being captured and moved. It replaces a 17-year-old rule.
Eventually the habitat area will include all of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40.
"Overall, the (Arizona Game and Fish) department is very happy with the final rule," said Jim DeVos, the department's assistant director for wildlife management. "It's a balanced plan. Nobody got everything they wanted."
Environmental groups were not as happy with the final rule. "The Mexican gray wolf recovery program has been hamstrung from the start, and this new management rule doesn't go nearly far enough to fix the problem," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued Fish and Wildlife and forced it to come up with a new rule this month.
"Capping the population (at 325 wolves) and keeping them out of the Grand Canyon and northern New Mexico will keep the lobo on the brink of extinction," Robinson predicted.
Currently an estimated 83 Mexican wolves roam the wilds of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Others live in captivity throughout the region, including the Heritage Park Zoo in Prescott.
DeVos predicts the next count in February will likely show more than 100 exist in the wild. Captive pups released to the care of wild adults last year are still alive, and Mexico's first wild pups were born last year, he noted.
These are signs that the recovery program is making good progress since it started reintroducing Mexican wolves to the wilds in 1998, he said.
The wolves will stick to areas where elk are plentiful, he predicted. They're not fast enough to catch plentiful pronghorn in the Prescott area.
Next month Fish and Wildlife will start meeting with partners to work on a management plan to implement the rule, said Tracy Melbihess, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican wolf program biologist. Agency officials hope to finish the plan by the end of this year.
Fish and Wildlife also announced this week that it is listing the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies, triggering the need for a recovery plan.
The agency doesn't have a timeline for completing a new, more detailed recovery plan, Melbihess said. It could include more land and it definitely will include more than 325 wolves, she said. DeVos agreed that more than 325 wolves will be needed for the wolves to completely recover.
Arizona Game and Fish officials want the wolf recovery area to stay within the wolves' historical range, where they lived before they were extirpated from the U.S. around 1970. The state agency doesn't believe that includes lands north of I-40, DeVos said.
The historical range is up for debate, Melbihess said. However, her agency isn't limiting the wolf habitat to historical habitat because of issues such as human development and climate change.
The final rule made three major changes from last year's draft rule, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey said:
It set a population objective of 300 to 325 wolves.
It added a process for relocating wolves that are reducing ungulate herds by 15 percent.
It added phases for wolf territory expansion.
Those changes closely mirror the Arizona Game and Fish Department's requests. More than 40,000 people commented on the draft rule.
"It's encouraging to see the Fish and Wildlife Service finally taking steps to improve Mexican wolf recovery, but the Service's refusal to address the fundamental flaw with the program, the species' 'non-essential' status, undermines any progress," said Bethany Cotton, the WildEarth Guardians' wildlife program director.
The wild wolves are non-essential to the survival of the species because officials also have captive wolves, Melbihess said.
The "non-essential" designation allows people to kill the endangered wolves in their designated territory under certain circumstances that have expanded.
Ranchers can kill the wolves for attacking livestock. Anyone can kill wolves that are attacking pets on private, state and tribal lands. Some ranchers will still get tracking devices so they know where wolves with GPS collars are located, too.
The draft rule didn't allow people to kill wolves for attacking pets on state trust lands, but the final rule changed that.
And anyone can kill a Mexican wolf in self-defense of a human. But state and federal officials say there are no records of any Mexican wolf ever attacking a human, and only one record of a larger gray wolf killing anyone in North America.
Game and Fish wants to increase payments to ranchers who lose livestock from wolf predation or harassment.
"The biology of the wolf recovery is relatively easy," DeVos said. "Social acceptance has been one of the limiting factors."
Game and Fish supports the effort to restore wolves to the ecosystem, he said, noting it has contributed $7.1 million to their recovery.
"We do wildlife conservation," he said. "That is our business."
He lives in Dewey and says he won't mind wolves in his backyard if that's what it takes to recover the species.
The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors is among those who don't want wolves here, however.
"Yavapai County doesn't need wolves," Supervisor Chip Davis said last year. "We've got a fix for the imbalance in the ecosystem. It's called hunting."
Supervisor Tom Thurman said the wolves have created havoc in their existing recovery area.
"People are shooting wolves left and right because of their predatory nature," Thurman said.
To learn more about the Mexican wolf recovery plan, go online to fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf.
Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodderBecause of changes between the draft rule and final rule in response to Arizona Game and Fish Department concerns, Mexican wolf territory will expand westward in phases.
It could be as long as 12 years before they're free to roam throughout the expansion area, depending on whether Fish and Wildlife officials believe the extra area is needed for the species' survival.
The Phase I expansion area includes a small part of Yavapai County east of I-17 and north of Highway 260.
In Phase 2 after at least five years, wolf territory would expand west in Yavapai County to a line following Highway 89 south to Highway 69 and I-17. The agency could release wolves east of I-17.
In Phase 3 after at least eight years, wolves could roam everywhere south of I-40, and Fish and Wildlife also could release wolves east of a line created by Highway 89 to Highway 69 to I-17.
-- Joanna Dodder
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