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Lawsuit settlement tosses rule on removing wolves for livestock kills

Mexican gray wolves no longer will be subject to the “three strikes and you’re out” rule, thanks to a settlement reached between environmental groups and the federal government.

The informal rule went by the bureaucratic sounding name of standard operating procedure 13 (SOP 13), which allowed wolves to be removed from the wild for attacking and killing livestock three times within a year.

Because of the settlement, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to scrap it.

Six environmental groups had joined in a federal lawsuit to toss out the three-strikes rule, claiming it had undermined efforts to recover the endangered wolf in the Blue Range area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

Wildlife agencies expected to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by the end of 2006. Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said there were only 52 when last counted in January. The center was a plaintiff in the suit.

“Obviously, the wolf is more endangered today than if the SOP 13 had never taken charge,” said Robinson, the center’s conservation advocate.

The center and five other environmental groups entered into a consent decree with Fish and Wildlife on Nov. 13. They originally filed suit in May 2008.

In addition to dismantling SOP 13, the agreement also strips an interagency group of any authority over management of the wolf program. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is a member of the group, known as the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee (AMOC). Other members include New Mexico Game and Fish, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Robinson said the agreement puts management of the gray wolf recovery back into the hands of Fish and Wildlife. He said the Endangered Species Act gives the agency control over wolf recovery.

AMOC, Robinson said, was susceptible to pressure from ranchers and others who had an interest in seeing the recovery program slowed, if not fail. Robinson said the wolf program was poorly managed under AMOC.

But Barbara Marks, a rancher and wildlife representative for the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, said she hoped AMOC would continue to play a role. The group had provided input to ranchers and other Arizona residents, Marks said.

“I hope that we’re not going to be taking a tremendous step backwards in community relationships,” Marks said. “That’s my biggest worry.”

Marks and her husband Bill run a cattle ranch in the Blue Range.

Officials with the Arizona Game and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the Center for Biological Diversity’s press announcements on the settlement misleading. They said Fish and Wildlife already had the final say in all decisions.

In its own news release, Arizona Game and Fish noted: “AMOC is not and never has been the deciding authority on whether or not a wolf stays in the wild.”

Arizona Game and Fish has a 30-plus year involvement in the wolf program and has spent $5.3 million on recovery efforts. The wolf’s reintroduction was spearheaded by Terry Johnson, now endangered species coordinator for Arizona Game and Fish.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman echoed Arizona Game and Fish, saying AMOC made recommendations but did not call the shots.

“We’ve always maintained our management authority and decision-making over wolf recovery,” said Tom Buckley with the federal agency’s Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque.

As for SOP 13, it was never a hard-and-fast rule in the first place. It was a guideline, Buckley said. Wolves were not automatically removed after a third livestock killing, he said.

He cited the case of the Middle Fork wolf pack in New Mexico, which was blamed for nine livestock kills over a two- or three-week period. SOP 13 was in effect at the time, he said. The wolves were not removed.

“It was determined they were more valuable if they remained in the wild,” Buckley said.

Fish and Wildlife decided that, in the case of the Middle Fork pack, removing wolves would hurt genetic diversity.

It was a decision that did not win favor with the ranchers. Marks said wolf removal in Arizona under SOP 13 had gone fairly well, but added: “Things were handled differently in New Mexico.”

Robinson, however, said SOP 13 accounted for the removal of more than 60 wolves from the wild. It took effect April 2005. Of 66 wolves removed, he said, 37 were captured and never released. Nine have since died in captivity from old age, 18 did not survive capture, and 11 wolves were shot by federal Wildlife Services officers, he added.

That doesn’t count wolves killed illegally or those that died from other causes.

The Mexican gray wolf was reintroduced into the Blue Range area of Arizona and New Mexico in 1998, spared from extinction by a captive-breeding program. SOP 13 and AMOC arose out of a 2003 inter-governmental memorandum of understanding. That agreement expired in 2008. The lawsuit settlement pointed out that the 2003 agreement has “expired and has no legal effect.”

In the settlement, Fish and Wildlife recognizes that AMOC has no authority over it with regard to wolf recovery and management. Buckley said he does not know the future of AMOC.

“They may decide to stay together or they may dissolve,” he said.

Without SOP 13, Buckley said, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will decide case-by-case whether to remove wolves because of livestock attacks.

The agreement still has to be approved by U.S. District Court Judge David Bury in Tucson.

Even with the settlement, an unresolved issue remains. The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife to come up with new recovery plan. The existing plan, Robinson said, fails to define the number of wolves needed for a sustainable recovery – at which point they would no longer be considered endangered.

A goal of 100 wolves has been cited, Robinson said, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife never claimed that number “would be a recovery population.”

Buckley said a new recovery plan is in the works.

“That has been in the pipeline for years,” he said. “We’re going to develop a recovery plan that’s going to be reinvigorated.”

U.S. Game and Fish, in its news release, agreed that the plan, which was completed in 1982, is not working.

“The department has asserted for more than 10 years that failure to revive the plan has been a considerable impediment to wolf conservation,” according to the news release.

The department noted that a program to reimburse ranchers for livestock lost to wolves would help.

Such a program was introduced a month ago, Buckley said. A special fund will compensate ranchers for wolf depredation. Defenders of Wildlife, a plaintiff in the suit, has had a compensation program in place since 1998.

As for Marks, the rancher, she said she has learned to live with wolves.

“I’m not for having wolves here. I won’t lie about it,” she said. “But they are here. We have to try to work within the rules and regulations and try to have something that’s going to benefit everyone.”

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