State wildlife managers spent more than $216,000 on outside attorneys in less than half a year to defend against a claim that they violated the federal Endangered Species Act relating to Mexican gray wolves.
This confrontation began when the New Mexico Game and Fish Department last year lifted a ban on trapping in southwestern New Mexico, where the federal government reintroduced the endangered wolves. It meant state lands again were open to potential adversaries of the rare wolves.
WildEarth Guardians sued the Game and Fish Department, alleging a state agency had created a system that could harm or kill wolves guaranteed protection by federal law.
The suit, filed in February in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, named state Game and Fish Director James Lane and Game Commission Chairman Jim McClintic as defendants.
"No permit is necessary to trap skunks or coyotes. Wolves that should enjoy protection are in danger of being harmed or killed," said Wendy Keefover of WildEarth Guardians.
Every death of a Mexican gray wolf is statistically significant, she said, because its population in the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona numbers no more than 42.
Lane, through a spokesman, said money the state is using to defend against the lawsuit came from fishing, hunting and trapping licenses. He declined to say anything else.
State records show that most of the money spent so far by the Game and Fish Department has gone to the law firm of Kelley Drye in Washington, D.C. It had received $199,801 through June, the end of the state government's budget year.
Another $16,238 for the wolf case went to the Albuquerque law firm of Keleher & McLeod.
The suit is still being litigated, and seven agencies opposed to wolf reintroduction have intervened as defendants.
They include the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, the New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau and the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the cattle growers, said her group opposes the wolf as an unwanted and dangerous predator. She said she also resented WildEarth Guardians trying to create policies for the state.
"We need the ability to use our own lands," Cowan said in an interview.
Keefover of WildEarth Guardians said federal protection for the wolf trumps the state trapping program. Her group maintains the wolf's future is being threatened because of political maneuverings in New Mexico.
When Democrat Bill Richardson was governor, he issued an executive order prohibiting leg-hold and body-crushing traps within the Mexican gray wolf's New Mexico recovery area. He said he wanted to protect the wolves as much as possible until their population grew. Richardson's order came in July 2010, six months before he left office.
Republican Susana Martinez succeeded Richardson. The Game and Fish Department, as part of her administration, rescinded Richardson's trapping ban in July 2011.
It meant that trapping could occur year-round on lands where it had been prohibited. They included portions of the Wild Rivers Recreation Area of the Rio Grande, the Valle Vidal, Vermejo Ranch and the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
WildEarth Guardians is no happier with President Obama's administration than it is with Martinez's.
In 2010 the conservation group filed petitions with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in hopes of receiving an emergency exclusion of trapping in the Mexican gray wolf's range.
The Forest Service rejected the request and the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored it, Keefover said.
The wolf's territory also extends into Arizona, where it is safer.
Trapping is outlawed on Arizona's public lands. Voters, not politicians, made that decision in a public vote in 1994.
Cowan of the cattle growers association said the lawsuit amounted to little. Even the U.S. government describes Mexican gray wolves in the wild as a "nonessential experimental population," she said.
Cowan also said the chances of wolves dying or being hurt in traps were small and had occurred infrequently since their reintroduction in New Mexico and Arizona in 1998.
A study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of the Interior found that 14 Mexican gray wolves were captured in foothold traps set by people other than Fish and Wildlife employees. Thirteen of the trappings occurred in New Mexico.
Two of the wolves died and two others were hurt severely enough that leg amputations were necessary.
The same study found that 37 wolves were illegally shot, 12 were hit by vehicles, 11 were "lethally removed" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one was shot legally by a member of the public, and one died from a trap injury that was part of government research operations. Given the Mexican gray wolf's minuscule population outside captivity, Keefover said, the species could vanish, especially with programs such as state trapping that allows for year-round, unlicensed operations.
New Mexico residents pay $20 for a license to trap furbearers. But, as Keefover pointed out, no license for state residents is needed to trap coyotes or skunks.
Nonresident trappers can buy a license for $345. They must be licenses for coyote and skunk trapping.
Milan Simonich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com