Federal Wolf Program Could Threaten Energy Development in the Permian Basin

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”) has announced an intention to revise the scope of the agency’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, significantly expanding the geographic area within southern Arizona and New Mexico that Mexican wolves will be permitted to occupy. If finalized, FWS’ proposal would open large areas of mineral-rich territory in southeastern New Mexico to wolf occupation, potentially subjecting oil and gas operators (as well as other landholders and private stakeholders) to development restrictions under the Endangered Species Act.

The Mexican wolf, also known has the Mexican Gray Wolf, was first listed as an endangered species in 1978. Since 1998, FWS has reintroduced captive-bred Mexican wolves into the wild and managed the released population under a rule that designates the domestic wolf-population as “Nonessential, Experimental.” The 1998 rule designates two principle areas for wolf-management: (i) the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (“BRWRA”), an area that consists of all of the Apache and Gila National Forests, stretching across the border between Arizona and New Mexico; and (ii) the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area (“MWEPA”), an area encompassing most of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40, where suitable wolf habitat might potentially exist. Under the 1998 rule, Mexican wolves have been released into specific sub-areas of the BRWRA and then confined to BRWRA; wolves that disperse and establish territories wholly outside out of the BRWRA have been captured and translocated back into the recovery area or taken back into captivity.

On July 24, 2014, FWS announced the availability of a draft environmental impact statement (“dEIS”) that proposed revisions to the Mexican wolf program as implemented under the 1998 rule.  Most significantly, the dEIS recommends that the BRWRA designation be eliminated and that three wolf management zones be created within the MWEPA. The proposal expands the territory into which wolves may initially be released (Zones 1 and 2, including most of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico south of Interstate-40), and allows wolves to occupy the entire MWEPA—virtually the entirety of both states south of Interstate-40, including the oil and gas producing counties of southeastern New Mexico.

Under the proposal advanced in the dEIS, Mexican wolves would be permitted to occupy both federal and non-federal lands within the MWEPA and FWS would reserve jurisdictional authority to regulate for the management of the wolf population on both public and private lands. Despite the broad geographic scope of the lands within MWEPA, FWS has limited its review of the economic impact that the revised regulatory program might have to the proposal’s anticipated effects on ranching, livestock production, hunting, and tourism. Presumably because most of the lands currently being developed for energy resources fall within Zone 3 on the proposed plan – an area that FWS classifies as containing a limited amount of suitable habitat for wolves – FWS has not performed any analysis of the proposal’s impact on energy production.

FWS is accepting public comments on the proposal through September 23, 2014. For more information about the proposed rule revision, dEIS, and for links to submit comments to the administrative record, visit: http://www/fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/.