PHOENIX -- Saying the state's sovereignty is at issue, the Arizona Game and Fish Department sued the federal government Monday for failing to come up with a plan that would result in Mexican wolves being taken off the endangered species list.
The lawsuit filed in federal court is built around what Assistant Attorney General James Odenkirk said is the failure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to develop a legally required "recovery plan' for the wolf.
That, Odenkirk said, violates federal law.
But the issue goes far deeper than a technical violation.
Odenkirk said having the wolf listed as endangered and having a project to reintroduce the wolf to portions of Arizona have imposed "significant additional cost' to Game and Fish to manage and conserve wildlife.
"These costs will continue until the Mexican wolf is recovered and the Fish and Wildlife Service delists the species,' he wrote.
But the issue, Odenkirk said, goes deeper than that.
"Federal control of the Mexican wolf also interferes with Arizona's sovereign authority to manage and conserve the Mexican wolf pursuant to Arizona law,' he told the judge.
That goes to the heart of the case.
Once the wolf is no longer listed as "endangered,' the federal government no longer has any role to play in preserving the species.
And that would open the door to Game and Fish -- presumably under direction from the Legislature -- deciding how best to manage the species.
Heidi McIntosh, an attorney with Earthjustice, which has its own lawsuits against Fish and Wildlife Service over lack of a realistic recovery plan, said putting the state in control of wolf populations has implications all its own.
"Some would argue that the state could start treating wolves the same way they treat coyotes,' she said. "That's why federal protection is so important.'
McIntosh said this is not idle speculation. She said her organization had to file a separate lawsuit earlier this year after Game and Fish "badgered' the federal agency into accepting terms that actually would undermine a true recovery program.
"I don't think they have changed their stripes,' she said.
That's also the assessment of Andrea Santarsiere of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Arizona was a player in thwarting all efforts to complete a recovery plan,' she said, even as the state now claims it wants one. "Kind of ironic, isn't it?'
But Mike Rabe, head of the non-game and endangered wildlife program at Game and Fish, said there is no such agenda.
He said his agency just wants Fish and Wildlife to come up with some sort of realistic goal for what it would take to have a sustainable wolf population.
Rabe said he truthfully doubts the wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico will ever be large enough to no longer be listed as endangered.
But he said even if it reaches that point there is no reason to believe it will lead to the state allowing the wholesale killing of the animals.
"We're interested in conservation of wolves, too,' he said. "And our goal is not to shoot them and set up a hunt for wolves.'
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions over a decision by the federal government to reintroduce the wolf into areas of Arizona and New Mexico where it used to roam.
That has led to complaints by ranchers that the animals are killing their livestock.
Lawmakers have resisted the efforts, including passing measures that would allow ranchers to kill the wolves despite their listing as endangered.
One of the bills said the federal wolf recovery program introduces a new population of "dangerous alpha-level predators and varmints into vast areas of land that have not seen wolves since the 1930s.'
Those, however, have been vetoed.
Going to court opens a different front.
Potentially more significant, it comes as Fish and Wildlife is facing other lawsuits filed by environmental groups which fault the agency for not doing enough to ensure recovery of the wolf.
But those lawsuits say the agency is not doing enough to protect the wolf.
Having its own lawsuit could give Arizona a seat at any settlement talks, giving the state a chance to advance its own agenda.
Rabe said his agency is "the monkey in the middle that gets hit on both sides' by ranchers and environmentalists who have "wildly different goals.'
"Because the recovery plan is so old and out of date, it just says 'no less than 100 wolves,'" he said. "The cattlemen seize on that and they go, 'We're over 100 wolves, that's it, we're done.' '
That, he said, is an unrealistic number for recovery.
"It's going to be more than that,' he said. But Rabe said some environmental groups are talking about thousands of wolves.
"And that's not reasonable in Arizona and New Mexico,' he said. "There's no way we can carry that many wolves without having huge conflicts (between wolves and others) all the time.'
Santarsiere agrees with Rabe on the point that a realistic plan is likely to involve a lot more wolves than are there now.
"The best available science says we need three metapopulations of several hundred wolves each,' Santarsiere explained. "We're looking at a population that's just barely over a hundred wolves.'
Jeff Humphrey, spokesman for Fish and Wildlife Service said his agency cannot comment on ongoing litigation.
But the agency, in its own documents, has said it is working on the problem and that, after improving the conservation status of the existing population, it intends to revise the recovery plan that meets all the legal requirements.
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