by Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic
State and federal agencies have spent more than $20 million over 30 years to restore the Mexican gray wolf to its native habitat in eastern Arizona, an effort now teetering toward failure as the dwindling wild population struggles to survive.
What has happened has exposed troubling weaknesses in the wildlife conservation system. Politics, competing interests and drawn-out lawsuits hinder on-the-ground work to protect the species, while three groups that should work together - state regulators, the federal government and environmental organizations - are too often at odds.
Emotions have magnified the conflicts over the wolf's return, but most of the arguments surface repeatedly in other cases. Wildlife agencies say courts, ruling on suits filed by environmental groups, increasingly trump science in management decisions. Environmental groups accuse the agencies of dragging their feet and favoring hunters and ranchers over native species.
The risk is that Arizona's native wildlife, already imperiled by shrinking habitat and threats from non-native species that can take over an ecosystem, will face an even more uncertain future.
"We're not going to turn Arizona back into the 1800s," said Pat Graham, state-chapter director for the Nature Conservancy. "People will have an impact. But if we're going to maintain our natural diversity, we've got to find a way to live with native wildlife."
In this story, The Arizona Republic continues its look at vanishing native species, the threats they face, in the wild and in the bureaucracy, and the costs of losing them - costs to a tourism- dependent economy and to a way of life rooted deeply in the state's natural wonders.
Ranchers vs. wolves
During the first half of the 20th century, the government's position on Mexican gray wolves, known as Lobo wolves, was simple: Shoot on sight.
The policy of the U.S. Biological Survey in Arizona, the predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was spelled out in a 1930 document: "All Lobo wolves and jaguars will be taken as fast as they enter this state from New Mexico and Mexico, as 100 percent of them live on livestock and game."
Ranchers, hunters and other land users dictated wildlife policy in those days, so wolves that killed livestock or other game animals were exterminated. By the early 1960s, the once-mighty predator had vanished from Arizona.
Around the same time, the nation was gaining new ecological awareness, helped along by emerging science. By 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which allowed the federal government - working, when practical, with state wildlife agencies - to protect imperiled wildlife.
In 1976, the Mexican gray wolf, a species by then all but gone, was listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a recovery program that established a specific habitat and called for reintroduction of the wolf using animals bred in captivity.
The goal was to build a self-sustaining population of at least 100 wolves. (Since the first release in 1998, a total of 92 wolves have been released; the population at the end of 2009 was 42.)
But ranchers resisted, arguing that wolves kill their livestock. They lobbied Congress and their state lawmakers and sued the federal government. The result, environmental groups say, is a program that was designed to fail.
First, the government decided to release wolves under rules that give agencies more leeway to remove or kill a wolf if it is caught preying on livestock. Such latitude is unusual in an endangered-species case.
Then, the federal agency limited the wolf packs to territory in Arizona after New Mexico gave in to protests by ranchers and refused to allow wolves in the wild. The wolves are the only endangered species limited by political boundaries, said Michael Robinson, who works on wolf issues for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
"When you look at the wolf program, the greatest losses to the population have been the same federal predator-control program that originally eliminated them," Robinson said. "It raises the question of how much has actually changed."
Since 1998, the wildlife service has shot 11 wolves for preying on cattle and sheep and permanently removed 23 to 34 others, depending on whose numbers are used. Poachers have killed at least 35, including two in the past month. Environmental groups believe the poachers are linked to wolf opponents, though the shootings are mostly unsolved.
A science-based assessment of the wolf program released by the wildlife service earlier this year warned that the population was at risk of failure. Brian Millsap, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, disagreed but acknowledged that the wolf program was challenging, in part because the wolves occupy land used by grazing livestock.
"We went into this with the belief that if the wolves consistently depredated livestock, they need to be removed," he said. "I don't think we make the decision that livestock operations are more important than conservation or vice versa."
Conservation by litigation
Convinced that the government ignored its responsibilities to protect the wolf, the environmental groups turned to the courts, filing so many lawsuits over the years that the wolf- recovery effort can be tracked almost as easily from a courthouse as from the wild lands the animals prowl.
The environmental groups began with arguments familiar in other endangered-species cases: the government, usually the federal government because it administers the Endangered Species Act, has failed to move the animals closer to recovery.
The complaints about the wolf program were often more focused on the motivation of the government, both state and federal. The environmental groups say the agencies involved in helping the wolf were swayed by ranchers and other land users, as well as by lawmakers who support those interests.
Ranchers themselves have filed suits almost as often as the environmental groups, arguing that releasing wolves imperiled their ability to graze cattle on public lands.
Most of the species new to the threatened or endangered lists over the past decade attained that status after someone sued.
Wildlife managers believe they could do their job more effectively if they didn't spend the time they do answering lawsuits, which sometimes arrive weekly or even more often.
Steve Spangle, director of the Arizona ecological services office for the federal wildlife agency, said he once compiled a regional list of species that might warrant protection and believes he could have worked his way through the list within a few years if his attention hadn't been diverted by lawsuits. Instead, he said, "we never touched the list."
Some of those lawsuits force the government to focus on the higher-profile, or charismatic, species, such as the jaguar, whose plight made international news last year after the death in captivity of Macho B, the last known jaguar in Arizona.
"There is some frustration there," Spangle said. "We can't do a lot for the jaguar in this country, yet we have to put significant resources toward that animal."
Meanwhile, he said, there are fish, frogs, bats, snakes and other species that could use the money that will be spent on creating a recovery plan and designating habitat for the jaguar, which has likely retreated to Mexico.
Environmental groups defend their work. In some cases, land users or businesses have agreed to help protect a species in advance of a lawsuit. Water provider Salt River Project, for example, designated habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher before a lawsuit could affect operations of its dams and canals.
The Mexican wolf program would have progressed even less had the government been left on its own, environmental groups say. They say they have helped propel many species onto the endangered or threatened species lists by petitioning the government to act.
"When I look into why they're not getting anything done, it's not lawsuits," said Noah Greenwald, endangered-species program chief for the Center for Biological Diversity. "They have an incredibly cumbersome bureaucratic process. The listing decisions they make are primarily because of lawsuits, not in spite of them."
Dual roles debated
How competing interests sway wildlife conservation is seen most clearly, environmental groups say, in the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Even its name reflects conflicting goals, they say.
"They're hostile to the non-game side," said state Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, who is Arizona director of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Although not the chief enforcers of the species laws, the state often shares work with the federal agency and has taken the lead on some issues in the Mexican wolf program.
Patterson tried and failed in the 2010 Legislature to change the agency's name to Arizona Wildlife Conservation Service to recognize its wider responsibilities.
"I think the agency itself forgets its role," he said. "Everything that isn't hunting and fishing is just 'non-game,' stuff they can't sell licenses for."
Hunting and fishing licenses generate almost all of the department's revenue. The department receives no money from the general fund, an arrangement similar to that in most other states.
Critics say the agency's dual role puts it at odds often with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is focused solely on wildlife conservation. The state seems most conflicted in cases involving predators, such as the wolf or the mountain lion, whose presence on a ranch or among other game animals leads to policies that lead to removal of the predator.
The state acknowledges that it has disagreed with federal regulators over other predator-related decisions, but officials say their positions are not anti-wolf or pro-rancher.
"Ultimately, wolf conservation is accomplished by wolf acceptance, or at least tolerance," said Terry Johnson, endangered-species coordinator for the state agency and architect of its wolf policies. "We have to weave the wolf into the fabric of the community rather than force the community into the fabric of the wolf."
Patterson, a hunter himself, blames some of the problems on the Game and Fish Commission, which sets policy for the department. Members are appointed by the governor, and Patterson said Gov. Jan Brewer seems to be trying to stack the panel with anti-conservation forces.
Brewer has appointed two of the five members, Jack Husted of Springerville and John Harris of Tucson. Both have extensive law-enforcement backgrounds - Harris is the current police chief in Sahuarita - both worked as reserve game rangers for the state agency and both are avid hunters.
The only commission member with a background in wildlife conservation is the current chairwoman, Jennifer Martin, a biologist whose appointment in 2006 by Gov. Janet Napolitano stirred strong protest among hunting interests. Napolitano also appointed the other two members, whose five-year terms are staggered to produce one vacancy a year.
Larry Voyles, director of the state Game and Fish Department, said the commission actually helps shield the agency from politics by removing policy-setting activities from the direct purview of the Legislature.
He calls the hunting-bias issue "a red herring" and said his agency's non-game side works hard on behalf of imperiled species. It has achieved success in some tough cases, including the black-footed ferret, once the most endangered species in the country.
Hunters and anglers provide the money needed for wildlife conservation, Voyles said, and they are active in other ways, too. Trout Unlimited has worked on behalf of the threatened Apache trout, and the Arizona Elk Society works to clear areas of vegetation. Those projects benefit the elk but also create healthier habitat for other species.
"We hear from people that what wildlife needs is habitat," Voyles said. "It doesn't matter whether they're hunted or not hunted, they have those same needs. The Sonoran pronghorn near Yuma isn't hunted because it's rare. The pronghorn farther north can be hunted. The conservation activities aren't that different."
Although many protection efforts remain mired in expensive court cases, occasionally a species offers hope that competing sides can unite.
Near the Grand Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs, an effort to reintroduce the California condor has worked so far because of painstaking attention the birds have received - and cooperation among hunters, environmentalists and others.
Still, even as condors recover, protecting them from some of the same threats that led to their near-extinction will mean a perpetual struggle.
The issue is lead. Condors, along with bald eagles and other raptors, are suffering from high lead levels that, left untreated, could kill them. One likely source is the carcasses of animals shot by hunters. The condors eat the remains and ingest fragments of lead bullets, which partially disintegrate upon impact.
"It's something we can choose to acknowledge or not to," said Chris Parish, California condor project director for the non-profit Peregrine Fund.
Few endangered species have required the attention the condors have. The need for medical care was great enough that a small hospital was established near Marble Canyon.
The lead issue is probably not new and may have contributed to the birds' rapid demise.
"We should try to think in those terms," Parish said. "If we're going to impact their habitats, let's do what we can for them."
Parish, a lifelong hunter himself, has started talking to hunters' groups and urging them to switch to non-lead ammunition. He said many hunters are angry at first, but they listen. Some come around, and the reason may resonate for a lot of Arizonans who wonder about the value of the state's native species.
"Hunters like to see condors soaring overhead," Parish said. "It's just part of the whole Arizona experience."