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Mexican Gray Wolves Lawfully Released Into New Mexico's Wilderness

New Mexico lost its court battle against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for releasing Mexican gray wolves into the wilderness of west-central New Mexico.

Arguing that the federal government did not have its permission, the state had asked the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold an injunction against further releases of the endangered species. But the appeals court said, in New Mexico Department of Game and Fish v. U.S. Department of the Interior, the state did not show that the releases would irreparably harm the wildlife environment.

"For example, assuming arguendo that the Department is correct in asserting, for the first time on appeal, that a Mexican wolf may kill over twenty elk and deer per year, the Department offered no evidence that the release of one, ten, fifty, or even one hundred additional wolves would affect the overall populations of the state's ungulate herds or necessitate action from the Department in order to manage and maintain those populations," Judge Carolyn B. McHugh wrote for the court.

First There Were Two

The Mexican gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. The wolves had nearly been killed off by hunters, primarily to protect livestock.

The federal government developed a program to capture and repopulate the wolves in the Apache and Gila National Forests, which includes parts of New Mexico. By the end of 2015, about 97 Mexican wolves were living in the wild.

New Mexico had cooperated with the program until 2016, when it refused to permit further releases. The state said it could not determine whether more wolves would conflict with wildlife management efforts.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife released two more wolves anyway, leading to the litigation.

Species' Survival at Stake

The agency said it did not need a state permit because the species' survival was at stake. Moreover, the state had not shown irreparable damage would result from the releases.

On appeal, the court agreed. The appellate panel said New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish did not present sufficient evidence that the wolves would irreparably harm the biosystem.

"The Department did submit evidence detailing the number of Mexican wolf depredations on livestock or pets from 1998 to 2014. But because the Department's claims of irreparable injury relate to its ability to manage wild populations of ungulate species, this information is irrelevant to the present inquiry," the court said.

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