In what would be a legal victory for a Tucson-based environmental group, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has apparently axed a controversial permit provision allowing it to capture Mexican wolves that migrate into this country from Mexico.

On April 11, the federal government apparently sent the Center for Biological Diversity a copy of a new permit for wolf capture that, as in earlier permits, allowed the service to take Mexican wolves introduced into this country as part of the “experimental, non-essential” population that is part of the government’s 15-year-old Mexican wolf recovery program.

But the new permit didn’t contain the legally contested language that was in the most recent permit – approved in Nov. 2011 – authorizing capture of wolves that come into Arizona from north of Interstate 40 or south of Interstate 10. Those wolves would be normally treated differently, legally, from those released and now roaming in and near the service’s Blue Range Recovery Area in eastern Arizona.

That’s where the U.S. government has released its own wolves for the recovery program, which has now put the Mexican wolf population in this country at 75. The new permit, of which the center sent a copy to the Star, was issued almost exactly two weeks after the center had filed suit challenging the earlier permit as illegal.

The center trumpeted the service’s apparent reversal in a press release. It said the contested “take permit” authorized migrant wolves from Mexico to be trapped and kept indefinitely in captivity, even though by law those wolves should be fully protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Such capture is already allowed under certain circumstances for the experimental, non-essential wolf population released under the U.S. wolf recovery program, but environmentalists have objected to the idea of Mexican-origin wolves also being captured.

Cattlegrowers, not anxious to see additional wolves in this country they believe threaten their livestock, were critical of the service’s apparent decision.

The Arizona Game and Fish Departrment also didn't like the change, calling it "unfortunate."

"It would seem to severely hamper federal agencies covered by the permit from actively manage wolves entering into the zone south of I-10 from Mexico," said Larry Riley, assistant director of Game and Fish's wildlife management division. 

This blog uses the word "apparently" for the permit change because the Fish and Wildlife Service is refusing to comment, due to ongoing litigation between the center and the service over the permit issue.

The biological diversity group believes the capture provision would have damaged prospects of real recovery for Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest and Mexico, said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the center.

“The fact is that this permit should never have been on the books in the first place. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never provided an opportunity for public comment on this permit and never bothered to publicly disclose it until after our legal challenge.”

Despite the revised permit, the center’s litigation remains active because a few issues still need looking at, Robinson said.

While the wolves released in this country and in northern Mexico are biologically identical, legally they would be treated differently in this country without the service’s 2011 permit in place, center officials have said. Wolves released under the U.S. program don’t have the same level of protection as those who migrate in from outside the Southwest.

The Mexican government, working with the conservation group Naturalia, had started releasing wolves in that country about a month before the service issued the controversial permit in 2011. Five wolves were released into the San Luis Mountains in northeastern Sonora.

The center’s lawsuit said that as of now, about 14 wolves have been released in Mexico since that program began. The Star hasn't been able to confirm that number with Mexican sources.

Game and Fish's Riley said that the department has made its belief "crystal clear" for 25 years, that wolves, an apex predator, must be managed -- hence its disappointment at the service's apparent turnabout.

"Wolves are being restored today on a landscape that hosts a wide range of human interests and uses, with much of that landscape including multiple-use federal public lands," Riley said in an email. "Restoring wolves on a working multiple-use landscape that presents of myriad of potentially significant conflicts requires active monitoring and management.

"The inability of federal agencies to participate in active management of wolves in a recovery context, because their actions would not be covered by a federal permit, seems to be a misinterpretation of their trust responsibilities to manage species and the public’s resources."

Since wolf reintroduction started here in 1998, Riley said, the department has applied an adaptive management principles in moving toward the wolf program's original goal of 100 wolves, "occupying a working multiple-use landscape that is markedly different than when wolves were extirpated."

"To facilitate that increase, the affected people that live and derive their well being from a landscape shared with wolves (and other predators) must be considered in any recovery formula and be viewed as willing partners," Riley said. "AGFD’s view is that, for the program to be a success, wolves and the corresponding impacts tied to populations of this apex predator must be actively managed given the broader suite of public trust responsibilities involved."

 The Arizona Cattle Growers Association believes that wolves released in Mexico should be returned there to help that country grow a viable population, an association official said.

“If the wolves keep leaving, they are not going to have a success of establishing any type of population down there,” said Patrick Bray, the association's executive vice president.

Second, the presence of any additional wolves in this country who are not part of the experimental population is absolutely a concern to ranchers who fear that migrating wolves would eat more livestock, Bray said.

Overall, it appears the wildlife service is running the entire wolf program by the seat of its pants, changing direction with little notice or clear reason, he said.

“If they make clear rules, we know what they are, and everybody lives by them, that’s OK. At the moment, we don’t know what direction they’re headed and what direction we’re living under.”

In filing its litigation on March 28, the biodiversity group said it was ridiculous and dangerous that the imperiled Mexican wolves “crossing lines on a map from one desert mountain range to another risk government capture and confinement.

“For these wild wolves to recover, they have to be allowed to roam freely,” the center’s Robinson said in announcing the lawsuit.

When the service issued the earlier permit, it wrote a biological opinion that argued that while the capture of inbound wolves posed risks of injury or death to the animals, “the adverse effects of capture or translocation or incorporation of a wolf into the captive breeding program is outweighed by the beneficial effects on the species survival and recovery by reducing human and livestock conflicts.” 

The center’s lawsuit, however, said the opinion understated the risks of capture and relocation of wolves.