A federal judge on Friday granted the New Mexico state government a temporary injunction preventing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing any more Mexican gray wolves into the wild.
U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson of Las Cruces sided with the state Department of Game and Fish, which objected last month after the federal agency released two 9-day-old wolf pups into the Gila National Forest. The state agency said wolves cannot be released in New Mexico unless it issues permits for them, an argument that Johnson accepted.
The state also asked that the wolf pups be removed from the wild, but Johnson denied that request.
For its part, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said sending more wolves to the wild was part of its attempt to grow and diversify a population in which inbreeding is rampant.
Just 97 Mexican gray wolves are living in the wild, according to the annual survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Johnson enjoined the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from importing or releasing any wolves or wolf offspring without first obtaining a permit from the state.
The service, however, argued that its authority to add to the wolf population was rooted in the Endangered Species Act and it did not need to consult with the state. It said the law should override the state’s permit process and the releases would have a minimal environmental impact.
Johnson disagreed, writing in the decision that the state “has sufficiently shown a significant risk that the release of an apex predator, without Petitioner’s [state’s] knowledge of the time, location, or number of releases, presents a serious enough risk of harm to the State’s comprehensive wildlife management effort to satisfy the irreparable injury requirement.”
According to the court order, the state argued that between 1998, when the federal government first began releasing wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, it had always received a permit before the releases occurred. But following two permit denials by the State Game Commission in 2015, on the basis that the service did not have an adequate management plan, the service said it would move forward regardless of the state permitting requirements. Johnson found that the federal agency was required to consult with the state in order to facilitate a wildlife release.
One conservation group quickly criticized Johnson’s ruling.
“The court’s actions today take the Mexican gray wolf one step closer to extinction in the wild,” said Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife.
Sargent said the wolves’ survival might be dependent on the federal agency appealing Johnson’s ruling.
Defenders of Wildlife is one of several conservation groups, including WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, who filed a motion to intervene against the state earlier this week, advocating to keep the pups in the wild, saying not to do so would be a “crime against nature.”
The groups are hoping to be granted intervenor status to participate fully in the ongoing case.
“For the wolves it is incredibly time-sensitive because we need to get as many new wolves released into the wild as possible,” she said. Sargent said the opportunity to release any more pups had already passed and the period where adult wolves can be released, typically summer months, is quickly passing, too.
“If they miss that because of this preliminary injunction, there won’t be any releases in New Mexico this year,” she said. “And that is really serious.”
Game and Fish spokesmen did not respond to calls for comment Friday evening.