Ranchers and two southern New Mexico counties sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court Friday for changing a policy about capturing cow-killing Mexican wolves without first conducting a study on the change's impact on humans.
The lawsuit says that rules governing the federally-managed wolf reintroduction effort, launched in 1998, provided for the removal of wolves that prey on livestock in the recovery area of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.
But since last year, Fish and Wildlife, in an effort to bolster the population of wild wolves, has stopped adhering to a 2005 standard operating procedure, known as SOP 13, that called for the removal or killing of wolves that preyed on three or more cattle in a one-year period.
The lawsuit says that the rule about removing "problem wolves" is being ignored, and that a change in the policy requires an environmental study on the impact of the change under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"The defendants' efforts to leave problem wolves in both the primary and secondary recovery areas" of Arizona and New Mexico, respectively, "was never part of the original proposed action and was not a practice contemplated or condoned in the ... final rule," the lawsuit says. "It is a 'substantial change' justifying the need to prepare an entirely new (environmental impact statement)."
Officials of the Fish and Wildlife Service could not be reached for comment late Friday.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court by Otero and Catron county commissioners; the Catron County-based group Americans for the Preservation of the Western Environment; the Adobe Ranch and the Beaverhead Ranch, both in the Gila National Forest; the Gila National Forest Livestock Permittees' Association; and Glenwood area rancher Alan Tackman. The plaintiffs are represented by Ruidoso attorney Daniel Bryant.
Bryant and Tackman could not be reached for comment late Friday. Neither could representatives of Catron County or the Gila National Livestock Permittees' Association.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has long been criticized by conservationists for deferring too much to the cattle industry and for not doing enough to grow the population of Mexican wolves in the wild. Ranching groups, particularly in Catron County, have been hostile to the program because wolves have killed cattle, horses and other livestock and frightened some rural residents.
The recovery project has foundered in recent years. Federal officials expected that by the end of 2006, more than 100 wolves would be in the wild, but the count at the end of 2009 was 42, down from 52 the previous year.
The illegal shooting of endangered wolves, a practice that has claimed more than 30 lobos since 1998, has been the "single greatest source of wolf mortality" in the wild population, according to federal officials.
In response to the faltering wild wolf numbers and litigation by conservationists, in May 2009 a multi-agency committee, including members of Fish and Wildlife and the Arizona and New Mexico game and fish departments, approved a "clarification memo" stating they were "authorized and expected" to be flexible in removing cattle-killing wolves.
After that, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest regional director, Benjamin Tuggle, decided several times to leave a wolf in the wild even though it had killed more than three cattle in a year.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said he believes the lawsuit will fail.
"There's nothing in (the recovery project rule) that requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove any particular wolf," Robinson said. "It gives them the authority to do that, as long as it doesn't get in the way of conservation."