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Mexican Gray Wolves: Public Meeting in Arizona

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Mexican Gray Wolves – Arizona Game and Fish Department Commission Public Meeting

Daniel Sayre and Cynthia Minde of National Wolfwatcher Coalition attended this extremely important Meeting in Arizona on Mexican Gray Wolves

It was with great excitement and trepidation that I, as a long time Arizona resident, made a decision to attend the November 2nd, 2011 Arizona Game and Fish Department public meeting at which the Commission would be briefed on the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort and perhaps vote to reaffirm, or even end participation in the recovery effort. While I was fully expecting the worst, I also understood that this would be an opportunity to attend the meeting with National Wolfwatcher Coalition member Cynthia Minde and other likeminded individuals in an effort to more fully understand the Commission and other stakeholders.

The initial presentation to the Commission was delivered by Lawrence M. Riley of the Wildlife Management Division of Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD). Mr. Riley provided a synopsis of the past commission guidance which included notable items such as collaboration with USFWS to complete a revised Mexican wolf recovery plan, renew the existing 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the project signatories, provide funds necessary to maintain AZGFD obligations under the renewed MOU, reaffirm support of aspects of the SOP 13 rule*, bring to the Commission a draft of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to submission to USFWS, and to provide answers to questions regarding the release of Mexican wolves in northern Mexico.

It was apparent from the presentation given, and the questions of the Commission, that less interest was placed on current status and viability of the 55 or so Mexican grays in the recovery area than the release of wolves in upper Mexico. While the presentation information was generally informative, only when the subject of this release was discussed did some members of the Commission appear to be wholly engaged in the presentation.

The subject of the Mexico release, in which 12 questions from the Commission were previously submitted to AZGFD staff for clarification, was contentious. Generally, the concern of the Commission was directed at how to manage and classify these Mexico released wolves. While some of the specific questions remain unanswered, there were a few items of interest such as the fact that if these wolves cross the border into Arizona or New Mexico they will be classified as endangered, perhaps offering the most protection within these states, as long as they are not within the Experimental Population Area boundary, which roughly splits the state of Arizona in half from east to west.

Other questions raised by the commission on this subject were less clearly answered by Mr. Riley. Such questions were related to the Mexico recovery goals, how many wolves Mexico may release, and whether there is any coordinated effort between the US and Mexico. The impression I received from the discussion was that of two separate efforts, with few if any common goals except the obvious, to ultimately recover the species.

Dr, Benjamin Tuggle speaking at AZ Game and Fish Meeting

The next presenter was Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region which includes Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Dr. Tuggle spoke about the reaffirmation of collaboration between USFWS and AZGFD and answered questions from the Commission.
Obvious to all present was the distrust and abject disdain of the Commission for the USFWS, and perhaps Dr. Tuggle himself. Commission Member Jack Husted, Springerville, posed questions on what apparently was a draft report produced by USFWS scientists on the potential number of wolves necessary for the long term viability of the species. Mr. Husted appeared to be fixated on the draft report, and more specifically, numbers of wolves stated within the report; approximately 1,300. It was not clear from the exchange whether the 1,300 wolf figure was meant to include the entire recovery range within the southwest, or Arizona alone. Dr. Tuggle explained that this report was produced strictly from the science point of view as a starting point and would be appropriately adapted to the management and implementation teams, and that it does not reflect in any form the final recommendation of USFWS.

The exchange between Mr. Husted and Dr. Tuggle was perhaps the most telling event of the public meeting. The comments made by Mr. Husted regarding the drop in deer permits by half, the question to Dr. Tuggle about what to tell Arizona citizens when the deer are completely gone, and other nonsensical items, clearly showed that Mr. Husted is certainly not a positive figure for the recovery effort. His apparent lack of information and knowledge about the prey base and predator/prey relationships was quite surprising and disheartening to say the least. We assume members of such commissions fully understand and know the basics of such important facts, and when they don’t, as Mr. Husted apparently doesn’t, we all fear for the regional biodiversity.

After lunch recess the public comment portion of the agenda item began. Not having attended such a commission meeting before I was somewhat fearful of what commenters may present to the Commission. With three minute speaking periods, the public did not have much time to convey their concerns and comments. Even with this limit, there was over an hour of public speakers scheduled.

The public comments, in the chamber and from regional offices, were overwhelmingly in favor of the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort. Speakers from conservation advocacy such as Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Animal Defense League, Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, and National Wolfwatcher Coalition gave statements of support for the program as well as direction to the Commission to utilize a science based approach to recovery. A few speakers sought to correct the apparent misinformation that some Commission members espoused during the meeting.

Another very positive aspect of the meeting was the number of Arizona citizens who spoke to the Commission, concerned about the welfare of the wolves, and the lack of progress of the program.

The Commission vote following the public comment period was, dare I say, disturbing. With overwhelming support by speakers, and over 70% of Arizonan’s supporting the program in recent polls, the Commission, with a 3 to 1 vote, decided to not support any additional Mexican gray releases until such time as a new EIS can be drafted. This will take a year or more.

Mr. Husted brought a motion before the Commission to reaffirm that the Department stay fully engaged in the program but not allow additional releases until the EIS is complete. Member Norman Freeman, Chino Valley, voiced his dissent. His concern appeared to be with the lack of progress of the program, and any delay, regardless of whether the delay was caused by USFWS or AZGFD, was not acceptable as a status quo. With four members voting, only Mr. Freeman voted against the motion.

How the vote affects currently planned releases was not clear. My gut tells me that Mr. Husted is simply trying to delay the release and recovery effort. It is clear that the Commission, and Mr. Husted specifically, wants control of the recovery program and judging by comments during the course of the meeting would support a delisting of the Mexican gray, which in fact the Commission did vote in favor of in the past. From my experience at this meeting I cannot personally trust the Commission to recover the species. It is clear to all that the future of the species lies with the protection of the Endangered Species Act, in conjunction with state and local agencies.

I wish to thank National Wolfwatcher Coalition for the opportunity to represent them at this important meeting. Also a big thank you to Cynthia Minde of National Wolfwatcher Coalition for attending.

*SOP-13: From Defenders of Wildlife: “Standard Operating Procedure 13” (SOP 13), an inflexible rule requiring the removal of wolves that are known or suspected to have killed livestock on three separate occasions during a one-year span regardless of the wolf’s genetic importance to the species, presence of dependent pups or the critically low numbers of wolves in the wild.  Removal, both lethal and non-lethal, under SOP 13 is now the leading cause of wolf removals from the wild.”

Daniel Sayre

National Wolfwatcher Coalition

Understand, Love, Protect

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