ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Two congressmen from the Southwest have introduced legislation that they say would protect farmers, ranchers and rural communities in Arizona and New Mexico from economic losses stemming from the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves.
Environmentalists argue, however, that the legislation would be a death sentence for the endangered predators.
U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Paul Gosar of Arizona introduced the bill this week. The two Republicans said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored public safety concerns and has failed to establish recovery goals for the wolves. They also criticized a recent decision to expand the wolf-reintroduction area in the two states.
Pearce said the current reintroduction program isn't effective and doesn't provide the kind of accountability that residents deserve. "Congress must intervene by delisting the Mexican wolf, eliminating this inadequate 'recovery' program and transferring species protection back to the state of New Mexico," he said.
Gosar said the experiment to return wolves to the wild in the Southwest is flawed and should be ended.
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976.
Reintroduction started in 1998, but the effort has been hampered over the years by politics, illegal killings and other factors. Disputes over the program's management have spurred numerous legal actions by environmentalists who want more wolves released and by ranchers concerned about their livelihoods and safety in rural communities.
There are now at least 109 wolves in the wild in the two states. That's more than at any time since the reintroduction started.
Changes announced by the Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year would allow up to 325 wolves to roam a larger area.
Environmentalists said the legislation threatens to remove endangered-species protections for the wolves.
"We need to stop playing politics and focus on saving this imperiled species," said Eva Sargent with the group Defenders of Wildlife. "It is shameful that these members of Congress from the Southwest are leading the charge to cause the extinction of a species that is so much a part of the history and heritage of the American West."
Under the legislation, the recent changes to the program would not be enforceable, nor would the determination by federal officials to list the subspecies as endangered.
If Mexican wolves were to be delisted and come under state management, Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity said that would "almost certainly lead to extinction."
Several agriculture groups are voicing support for the bill, including the 18,000-member New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association and the Public Lands Council.