PHOENIX — Federal officials have agreed not to try to capture and relocate wolves entering Arizona from Mexico.
In a deal approved Monday in federal court, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider wolves found wandering outside the current reintroduction boundary areas to be wild. The agency is, in essence, revoking the permission it gave itself to capture and relocate the animals.
Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity said the settlement is a crucial step in helping reintroduce the wolf population to its natural habitats in Arizona.
Robinson said the issue arose two years ago when Mexico began reintroducing wolves into its northern regions, a few dozen miles south of the area where Arizona and New Mexico meet.
What happened, he said, is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on its own, then gave itself a permit — without public notice — to capture any wolf that might cross the border and cause problems with livestock.
The agency already has the power to capture and relocate those wolves being reintroduced into Arizona and New Mexico in an effort to keep them from preying on cattle. That is because the whole reintroduction program is being conducted under rules that specifically consider the wolves in the program to be a “nonessential population.’’
But Robinson said there is no reason to unilaterally decide wolves that wander into Arizona on their own should be treated in a similar fashion.
More to the point, he said it’s illegal. Robinson said the rules that govern the domestic reintroduction program, including relocation, do not apply to wolves that were not placed by the United States government but instead wandered into this country on their own.
“These wolves, under the law, are fully protected’’ as an endangered species,’’ Robinson said. “And you can’t simply sacrifice them under the law for special interests, in this case, the livestock industry.’’
Robinson said it is impossible to determine whether any of the wolves released by the Mexican government have, in fact, made their way into the United States.
In essence, the lawsuit settlement recognizes the rules require that if a wolf is found outside the reintroduction area — or other areas where the animals have been welcome — it is required to presume the animal is “of wild origin with full endangered status.’’ And that can be overcome only with other evidence the wolf is of domestic origin and reintroduced, like a radio collar or identification mark.
Robinson said the settlement may actually help wolf reintroduction in this country.
He said the latest report shows there are 75 wolves in the program, including 37 in Arizona. But that includes only three breeding pairs.
Robinson said inbreeding results in smaller litter sizes. He said wolves released in Mexico that manage to make their way across the border could help diversify the population.
The current wolf reintroduction area includes the Apache and Gila national forests as well as lands where the owners have said they are welcoming the animals. Robinson said that includes the Fort Apache Reservation as well as property owned in New Mexico by media mogul Ted Turner.