In Mexican wolf recovery, did science and politics clash?

A new study contends that the science used in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 Mexican wolf recovery plan was skewed by political influence. The publication has revived longstanding rivalries over the plan, with critics of the paper insisting the recovery plan actually improved science with more accurate data than earlier efforts.

The study, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, looked at the differences between the documents made by two recovery teams for the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). One of these, finished in 2013, was met with criticism from the state governments of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. The other, released in 2017, became the blueprint for the wolf’s recovery.

“There was a lot of pressure on the Service to come up with ways to set goals that were more amenable to the states in terms of fewer wolves in a smaller area,” said lead author Carlos Carroll, an ecologist at Klamath Center for Conservation Research, who like several of his co-authors, was part of one or both recovery teams.

The influence is especially problematic, Carroll said, because it goes against the legal mandate of the process to be based on science, independent of politics. While the original team was made up almost entirely of scientists, Carroll said, political appointees were included in the more recent planning effort.

“Any recovery plan that relies on misrepresentation of scientific data faces long odds in effectively achieving biological recovery,” he and his colleagues wrote. “Such a recovery plan also runs the risk of failing to resolve social conflicts, and may be vulnerable legally.”

TWS member Jim Heffelfinger, a wildlife science coordinator with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, disputes that politics were the driving force behind the 2017 plan. In a symposium at this year’s joint conference of The Wildlife Society and American Fisheries Society in Reno, Nevada, he plans to present it as an example of balancing science and policy, bringing “recently available data and information to the table, as well as the collective viewpoints of those who live, work, and recreate on the land,” as the symposium description says.

A member of the recovery team from 2010 to 2013, he resigned in protest over what he saw as poor science in the earlier effort, and he is planning a rebuttal to the Scientific Reports study.

A Mexican wolf pup. Populations of the animal have increased in the wild in recent years. ©USFWS

“There was so much shenanigans going on and so much that was not based on science that I resigned officially from the recovery team after two years with a long report citing all the scientific flaws in not only the recovery plan that we were all developing but also flaws in the planning process — who was and was not involved in the process,” Heffelfinger said.

Since the recovery effort began, Mexican wolf numbers continue to increase, with a record number of pups cross-fostered in the wild this year. That success contradicts the critics, Heffelfinger said. “It’s getting harder and harder for those people to make their arguments if anyone’s paying attention to the Mexican wolf population,” he said.

Carroll and his co-authors criticized the 2017 plan for having a smaller possible recovery range than the 2013 version. The new plan also concluded 320 wild wolves in the United States and 170 in Mexico represented a recovered population — the number needed to delist them from the Endangered Species Act — compared to the earlier plan’s 750 wolves in the U.S. An estimated 131 Mexican wolves currently roam the Southwest, with 30 more south of the border in Mexico.

The 2013 teams proposed putting two populations north of the current range in an area extending to southern Colorado and Utah. Supporters argued the wolves would have a better chance of succeeding there, where there are large protected areas with fewer livestock. In its review of the 2017 plan, the Conservation Affairs Committee of the New Mexico Chapter of The Wildlife Society, urged the population targets and recovery area of the final plan be increased.

But Heffelfinger, who co-authored a 2017 study in the Journal of Wildlife Management that concluded the wolves had no historical range in Colorado, said Mexican wolves were ill-suited to the area and could see their genes swamped by dispersing northern wolves if they interbreed.

“We won’t have a Mexican wolf anymore when we get this genetic sweep of Canadian wolf genes,” he said.

Heffelfinger was involved in both recovery efforts, joining the new team that created the 2017 plan. That plan was more scientific, he said, in part because it used updated parameters from the earlier work, including predicted mortality rates and female breeding rates, rather than data based on gray wolves in Yellowstone, which had been used in the earlier plan.

Carroll and his co-authors disagree. They argue the newer plan downplays the risk of disease and inbreeding, in part by ignoring the role supplemental feeding efforts may play in allowing genetically poor pups to survive, boosting recovery numbers only temporarily. The result Carroll said, is a plan that weakened recovery efforts to placate resistant states.

Only half the differences between the two plans can be attributed strictly to science, the authors concluded. The strikingly different plans point to the limits of using population viability analyses in recovery planning, the authors wrote, whether due to “rigorous” processes yielding different results or to “participants inappropriately distorting conclusions as to how many wolves were necessary for biological recovery.”

Best practices should “clearly distinguish science and policy elements,” they wrote.

Header Image: A new study criticizes the most recent recovery plan for Mexican wolves for being too influenced by politics. ©Jim Clark/USFWS