By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN | Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal that would change the way the federal government manages endangered Mexican gray wolves throughout the Southwest would be a disaster for the states involved unless changes are made, according to the head of Arizona's Game and Fish Commission.
The commission's concerns were outlined in a letter sent last week to ranchers, sportsmen and other groups in Arizona and New Mexico.
Commission chair Robert Mansell contends the current proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fails to define a cap on the number of wolves allowed in the Southwest. It also doesn't focus wolf management in areas that include suitable habitat and prey, he said, and fails to establish circumstances that would constitute unacceptable impacts to wildlife.
The draft rule would be a disaster for the states and their interests, Mansell wrote.
“It does not contain the elements required to manage wolves in balance” with deer, elk and other land uses, he said.
Mansell said the commission and Arizona's Game and Fish Department will continue negotiating changes to the proposal in an effort to protect the state's interest.
The ranchers and other groups had voiced concerns about a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meeting in September with state game directors from Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah to discuss amending the wolf rule. They claimed the agency wasn't being transparent and was not adhering to federal policies and laws, including provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
“These continued departures from lawful process and backdoor deals cut without public input undermine the integrity of the process,” the groups said in a Sept. 24 letter to Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
Charna Lefton, an agency spokeswoman, said Wednesday the Fish and Wildlife Service has a responsibility to meet with state agencies, local governments and others who might be affected by the proposed rule.
“We have met with hundreds of stakeholders representing a diversity of perspectives to ensure that our reintroduction of Mexican wolves takes their interests into account,” she said. “We deny the characterization of our meetings with our state partners as backroom deals.”
Critics have asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw its proposal until the measures covered in the meeting with state wildlife directors can be reviewed. Those measures reportedly include limiting the population of Mexican wolves to 325 and not allowing any of the animals to venture north of Interstate 40, which cuts through Arizona and New Mexico.
Lefton said discussions with Arizona officials continue, and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department has submitted comments.
The Fish and Wildlife Service expects to issue a final decision by January.