State case against feds over wolf releases moves to federal court

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proceeded with the release of two 9-day old Mexican wolf pups in New Mexico in late April, a move strongly opposed by the state. The state’s request to halt further releases has moved to federal court, because the defendants are federal employees. Courtesy Endangered Wolf Center

A legal battle over the release of Mexican gray wolves into the wild in southwestern New Mexico has shifted from state court to federal court.

Last week, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department asked a state judge for a restraining order that would stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing more of the endangered Mexican gray wolves into the wild after the federal agency released a pair of captive-born pups into a wild den. The request said Fish and Wildlife needs permission from the state before releasing wildlife — including wolves.

The federal government moved the case to federal court Friday because the defendants are federal employees. Meanwhile, lawyers for the Fish and Wildlife Service filed a motion earlier this week asking the federal judge to dismiss the state’s request for the restraining order because the federal court does not have jurisdiction over the case.

“Although we anticipated this move, we believe recent actions by the USFWS violate state and federal law,” Game and Fish Department Director Alexandra Sandoval said in a statement Tuesday. “A review of the state law violations certainly belongs in state court. Regardless of venue, we are committed to pursuing this matter.”

The court venue change is the latest action in an ongoing fight over a recovery program for the endangered wolf between the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Barack Obama’s administration and the state Game and Fish Department under the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.

In June 2015, Game and Fish denied the federal agency a permit to continue releasing wolves as part of the Mexican gray wolf recovery program. State officials said they had concerns over the direction of the program and said the agency lacked an updated management plan for the wolves.

In a direct snub to New Mexico officials, the Fish and Wildlife Service released two captive-born pups into a wild wolf den in April, hoping a mother with young wild pups would adopt them. In response, the Game and Fish Department threatened to sue.

But federal officials say they have a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to help the Mexican wolf population thrive in New Mexico and Arizona. The population now stands at about 100 wolves.

Small numbers of captive wolves have been placed in the wild since 1998.

But over the years, the Mexican gray wolf recovery program has been beset by politics. Ranchers have protested against releasing wolves into the wild over concerns about livestock loss and public safety.

Contact Uriel Garcia at 505-986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com.

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