The Arizona Game and Fish Commission wants federal protection of the Mexican wolf stripped as a way to "break through the gridlock" in the wolf- reintroduction program.
The commission voted 4-1 Saturday to support a bill pushed by a group of congressional Republicans that would delist the Mexican wolf as an endangered species, along with all other gray wolves living in the Northern Rockies and elsewhere in this country.
But a group of congressional Democrats including Raúl Grijalva of Tucson has written the U.S. Interior Department saying that more, not less, federal protection of the Mexican wolf is "urgently needed."
State game officials and ranchers say Arizona can do a better job managing the wolf than the federal government. Environmentalists say that without federal protection, the Mexican wolf might not even be around today.
THE STATE'S VIEW
In a statement released Monday, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which carries out game commission policies, said that if the wolf were delisted, the state would become more heavily involved in planning the species' future and would run wolf reintroduction in a "more affordable, efficient and effective manner."
Delisting the Mexican wolf would turn its management over to Arizona and New Mexico wildlife agencies and remove the federal ban on killing or harming wolves. Game and Fish said Arizona wolves would continue to be protected through state laws, and that the commission has no plans to let people hunt them.
The commission not only doesn't want to reduce wolf conservation, it desires to work with "all who are willing to come to the table to negotiate and seek solutions to issues," the Game and Fish Department said.
In a census a year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the wild Mexican gray wolf population had dropped to 42, its lowest number in seven years. Since reintroduction began in 1998, 34 of the wolves have been shot and more than 40 died of other causes.
From the start, the Mexican-wolf reintroduction program has been controversial. Ranchers have regularly complained about wolves eating livestock. Environmentalists and some biologists have complained the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't done enough to protect wolves or ensure their recovery.
Federal protection has left key decisions in endangered species issues up to judges, fostering "a litigation-driven, bureaucratic process that has driven up the cost of conservation and made Mexican-wolf conservation unaffordable for the state, jeopardizing the entire future of the species in Arizona," Game and Fish said.
The Game and Fish Commission recognizes that it is unfortunate and ironic that successful Mexican wolf conservation may hinge on removing it from the law intended to help restore it, the agency said. Still, "The commission believes that federal partnerships have been, and will continue to be, essential to continuing Mexican wolf conservation," the department said.
Jeff Menges, a Safford-area rancher, said he thinks the national effort to bring wolf management back to the states is a good idea because local decisions are usually better than those from federal agencies.
Environmentalists counter that the wolf would fare worse without federal protection.
"In suggesting that a population this small doesn't deserve the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the (Game and Fish) commission has forsaken their responsibility to both science and stewardship," said Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife.
And in a letter last Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Grijalva and 11 other congressional Democrats wrote "with a sense of urgency" to advise Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service to take five steps to increase the Mexican wolf population, "before ... this unique and vital animal can no longer be saved from extinction."
They want the service to immediately release 22 wolves into the wild, eight from Arizona and 14 from New Mexico. The Congress members said the service should immediately convene a team of scientists to prepare a Mexican-wolf recovery plan. The Interior Department should also take back radio telemetry receivers from ranchers that environmentalists suspect - and ranchers deny - are being used to track wolves so ranchers can kill them, the letter said.
"The urgency in getting more wolves into the wild in time to reproduce next year, and making them safer, is not to be discounted. Frighteningly, if the short-term is not attended to, it may prove entirely too late for the Mexican gray wolf," said the Democrats' letter.
Michael Robinson, of the Center for Biological Diversity, pointed to three instances in 2008 and 2009 in which Fish and Wildlife rejected Game and Fish recommendations that the service kill, trap or remove wolves linked to several livestock killings.
"Game and Fish's rhetoric can refer to states rights. But the fact of the matter is that the Mexican wolf came to the point of being seven animals from extinction. The Endangered Species Act saved them," Robinson said.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746. Follow him on Twitter at tonydavis987.