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Group alleges political meddling in wolf program

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The effort to return the Mexican gray wolf to the
American Southwest has been fraught with legal disputes, illegal shootings,
livestock deaths and emotion. Now a watchdog group is questioning the integrity
of key scientific findings related to the endangered animal’s recovery.

Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint this week
with the U.S. Department of Interior, alleging that the number of wolves
required for recovery have been altered due to political meddling.

The group also contends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended recovery
planning in May in response to political pressure that followed the release of
confidential documents to politicians and advocacy groups and concerns voiced by
officials in Utah and Colorado about expanding the wolf recovery area to their
states.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based group, called the
science behind Mexican gray wolf recovery a “political football.”

“The time for political negotiation comes after the scientific work is done,”
Ruch said. “In this instance, Obama officials are attempting to improperly
pre-negotiate the science to accommodate political partners.”

Regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to comment and referred
all questions to the Interior Department.

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said Friday the department will review the
allegations per the standard procedures outlined by its scientific integrity
policy. He declined to comment further.

The accusations do not help President Barack Obama, who has taken steps to
paint himself as a pro-science president after his predecessor was accused of
having put politics over evidence.

In 2008, the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Julie
MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife
Service for the Bush administration, improperly interfered with at least 20
decisions on endangered species. A report by the inspector general said the
integrity of the Endangered Species Act was harmed as a result and hundreds of
thousands of federal dollars were wasted.

In the case of the Mexican gray wolf, critics have lambasted the Fish and
Wildlife Service for spending more than $12 million on the predator over the
past decade and having little to show in return.

Surveys done at the beginning of the year put the wolf population in New Mexico
and Arizona at about 58. Biologists had expected more than double that by now.

Through rallies and letters to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar,
environmentalists have unsuccessfully pushed for the release of more
captive-bred wolves to bolster a population that’s scattered across millions of
forested acres in the two states. Their argument: More wolves would alleviate
problems with inbreeding and help offset illegal killings.

Environmentalists and even some scientists who work with the program have often
blamed politics for the lack of releases.

“Certainly the frustration has been building,” Ruch said.

According to the complaint filed Thursday by Public Employees of Environmental
Responsibility, the Fish and Wildlife Service and its state partners have
developed draft policies, informal agreements and other documents to “limit the
input of the best available science regarding wolf recovery in future actions.”

The complaint has sparked a call from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., for a
“full and fair investigation.”

“Attempts to change scientific findings because of political preferences
should not be part of the process,” the congressman said in a letter sent
Thursday to Salazar and Fish and Wildlife Service officials.

Ruch said he hopes the complaint leads to an investigation.

“We think there’s something to gain from putting it on the record,” he said.
“We believe that given the trend here, it’s going to go back to litigation so
this material will be available to those who will be challenging the Service
again.”

The group Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility wants the Interior
Department to enforce its integrity policy, take disciplinary action against
employees who violate the policy and establish disclosure rules for
communications between stakeholders and regional wildlife directors when it
comes to recovery plans for threatened and endangered species.

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM