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Judge finds poaching remedies vague in Mexican gray wolf recovery plan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have six months to come up with specific actions to address poaching of endangered Mexican gray wolves — actions that should have been included in a recovery plan published in 2017, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Because Fish and Wildlife either didn’t include specific actions or included vague ways to address human-caused wolf deaths, the recovery plan violates the Endangered Species Act, U.S. District Judge Jennifer G. Zipps ruled.

Although the Barack Obama appointee denied a wholesale rejection of the plan, the partial win was hailed by a coalition of nonprofits that sued Fish and Wildlife in 2018.

“More than 70% of documented Mexican wolf mortalities are human-caused,” said Elizabeth Forsyth, the plaintiffs’ attorney from the nonprofit Earthjustice.

“We’re glad that the court has recognized that for the Mexican wolf to survive, the Fish and Wildlife Service must put in place a robust plan that includes concrete actions to address the threat of illegal killing.”

The plaintiffs in two merged lawsuits include the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Endangered Wolf Center, Wolf Conservation Center, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist David Parsons, WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project.

The nonprofits claimed the plan violates the Endangered Species Act because it doesn’t use the best available science, but Zipps rejected that argument, saying Fish and Wildlife has discretion to decide the best ways to protect species. Zipps also rejected an argument that the plan doesn’t adequately address genetic diversity among the wolves.

Fish and Wildlife is reviewing the ruling and declined comment through a spokesperson Friday afternoon.

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The gray wolf was listed as endangered in the U.S. in 1976, and in 1982 Fish and Wildlife drafted a recovery plan. Seeing no hope for revival of the species, the agency then delisted the gray wolf — keeping the Mexican subspecies on the list — and the recovery plan stalled, Zipps wrote in the ruling.

But in 2010, Fish and Wildlife revived efforts to save the subspecies and convened a Mexican Wolf Recovery Team to finish the plan. In 2014, Defenders of Wildlife sued to force completion of the stalled plan, and Fish and Wildlife published it in 2017, according to Friday’s ruling.

Adding actions to reduce poaching could stave off extinction the Mexican wolves, which had dwindled to just seven individuals in captivity by 1976, said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The path to recovery for the Mexican wolf has been hampered by widespread poaching for far too long. Now that the Fish and Wildlife Service has to take this issue seriously, we hope these wolves will stand a better chance of survival,” Robinson said.

The plan lists 24 purported actions to address poaching, but they don’t address the problem, the judge said.

“Review of the recovery actions shows that few relate to human-caused mortality. Furthermore, many of the listed actions are so vague as to not constitute action at all,” Zipps wrote.

Two of the actions call for surveying and monitoring but don’t say how those will reduce poaching, two others simply call for a poaching reduction, the ruling says.

“The ‘action’ — reducing human-caused mortality — is identical to the objective — reducing human-caused mortality. Restatement of the threat does not constitute a management action which will address the threat,” Zipps wrote.

The judge cited a separate recovery implementation strategy as proof specific actions could be in the plan. That document suggests increased education among the public and increasing law enforcement presence to educate hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts about wolves, Zipps wrote.

The implementation strategy identifies several other concrete actions to address wolf killings, including installation of road crossings and compensating ranchers for livestock losses.

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The ruling is timely and important, said Parsons, the former Fish and Wildlife biologist and plaintiff in the case.

“Recent research shows that human caused mortality of these rare wolves, especially through poaching during times of reduced protection, has been consistently mismeasured and significantly underestimated,” Parsons said.

Poaching is the top cause of death among Mexican gray wolves. From 1998-2019, 105 wolves are known to have been killed and a similar number have disappeared. There are now fewer than 250 lobos in the wild, Earthjustice said in a news release.

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Poaching is the top cause of death among Mexican gray wolves. From 1998-2019, 105 wolves are known to have been killed and a similar number have disappeared. There are now fewer than 250 lobos in the wild, Earthjustice said in a news release.