For the third time in recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had one of its partners abandon an agreement that was meant to bring more collaboration to the troubled effort to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest.
While it's no secret the effort has been a point of contention among ranchers and environmentalists, one federal official says there will undoubtedly be a loss of perspective with fewer partners at the table.
"We like to have that collaboration and that kind of thought process that leads to better decisions," said Wally Murphy, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's ecological services field office in New Mexico.
Murphy called the recent developments "disheartening," given that the wolf program is facing critical decisions this year that will affect its future direction. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on revamping the wolf recovery plan, which, among other things, will spell out what it will take to eventually get the animal off the federal endangered species list.
"We really need all of our partners in that decision-making process," he said.
Several counties, state agencies and tribal governments in Arizona and New Mexico had signed on to a memorandum of understanding in 2010. The purpose was to provide a framework of collaboration in hopes of balancing the program's goals of returning wolves to the wild with pressures on ranchers, their livestock and other wildlife.
Now, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and three Arizona counties — Greenlee, Navajo and Graham — are the only remaining partners aside from federal land and wildlife management agencies.
The exodus started last summer with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. In late March, Grant and Sierra counties abandoned the agreement, and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture joined them earlier this week.
Caren Cowen, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Grower's Association, said the withdrawal is "indicative of how far awry the process is with people on the ground."
"There just doesn't seem to be any headway being made and input hasn't made a difference," she said.
Sierra County Manager Janet Porter Carrejo said residents were concerned that millions of dollars have been spent on the program since 2003 without much return. She also said residents feel the federal government hasn't been forthcoming with information about how many wolves are in the wild.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's most recent survey, completed in January, puts the wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona at about 58.
Captive-bred wolves were first released in Arizona in 1998 as part of the reintroduction effort. Biologists hoped to have at least 100 in the Blue Range Recovery Area after eight years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged that the effort to increase the population has been hampered by everything from illegal shootings, removals due to livestock kills and court battles over program management.
For New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, the decision to withdraw came down to staffing levels, budget limitations and the program's lack of progress.
"If we get to the point where we get staffed up again and things start moving and input is requested and desired, then we'll reconsider," he said.
Some wolf supporters argue that the local partners that bowed out have done little to advance recovery of the Mexican wolves.
"This is not a great loss to wolf recovery," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has pushed for the release for more wolves into the wild. "They used their positions to organize against wolves and to try to be insiders in a process that should be more open to the public."
Murphy described all the partners as critical and said he hoped they would sign on again once the agency comes up with a new recovery plan.
"One hundred wolves in the Blue Range was the best information we had in 1998. It's 14 years later, so we've got better information now and going through this recovery planning process gets us to even a better place," he said.