Thursday, October 2, 2008

NM judge rules on Mexican gray wolf ordinance

A federal judge has dismissed environmentalists' concerns over a western New Mexico county's ordinance regarding endangered Mexican gray wolves, saying the county amended the measure to remove provisions that would have allowed it to immediately trap or remove wolves from the wild.

WildEarth Guardians had sued Catron County in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe, alleging that an ordinance passed last year by the county violated the federal Endangered Species Act and was invalid.

U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez issued a ruling Tuesday that said the group's claims were moot since the county had amended the ordinance to remove provisions that authorized county officials to take action against wolves that were deemed to be threats to people.

However, Vazquez did not rule on WildEarth Guardians' claim that the county commission allegedly violated federal law when it targeted a pair of wolves for trapping last year.

WildEarth Guardians sees the ruling as a partial victory.

"What the court did was provide much needed clarity that the current law in Catron County does not authorize unilateral wolf removals," Melissa Hailey, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians, said Wednesday.

The group had complained that the county's original ordinance, adopted in February 2007, permitted county officials to immediately trap or remove wolves even though the animals were the responsibility of the federal government.

The county commission adopted an amended ordinance in April 2007 that allows it to demand that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remove a wolf that is determined to be a threat or that the agency authorize a designated county officer to remove the wolf.

County Manager Bill Aymar said Wednesday commissioners have a responsibility to keep residents safe.

"We're not playing a game, we're just trying to protect the citizen who has a bunch of little kids," he said. "It isn't going to do us any good to play political games if a wolf comes and bites one of those kids."

Aymar pointed to a recent case in which a Cruzville mother reported that an uncollared wolf killed family pets and attacked a horse on her property.

After sending a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the wolf be removed, Aymar said federal officials put up an electric wire and flags around the woman's property to dissuade the animal from returning. He said the county is waiting to see if that works.

"We're dealing with the reality of the situation as opposed to the nice esoteric discussion about the theoretical side of it," he said. "We have wolves here going on people's property attacking their pets, attacking their animals. Do we allow it to come to the place where a wolf attacks a child? No, we can't."

WildEarth Guardians pointed out that the court has yet to rule on whether the county violated federal law by trying to trap a pair of wolves in June and November 2007. The group has asked for a permanent injunction to stop the county's trapping activities.

"We remain committed to keeping Mexican wolves in the wild," said Rob Edward, carnivore recovery director for WildEarth Guardians. "Each and every Mexican wolf is essential to the survival of this critically endangered population."

The federal government has been reintroducing the wolves to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area—more than 4 million acres of the Gila and Apache Sitgreaves national forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona plus Arizona's White Mountain Apache reservation, interspersed with private land and towns.

The program began in March 1998 when the Fish and Wildlife Service released 11 wolves that were bred in captivity. Officials with the reintroduction program had predicted that by now, there would be a self-sustaining wild population of 100 wolves.

The recovery area had 52 wolves as of January 2008, and that number has fluctuated with wolf deaths and removals, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency conducts one count of wild wolves annually.

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