Updated: Thursday, 21 Jul 2011, 9:44 AM MDT
Published : Thursday, 21 Jul 2011, 9:44 AM MDT
ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - Wildlife managers are recommending that the state Game Commission approve a recommendation to end a trapping ban in southwestern New Mexico where federal officials have been working to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf.
The commission was expected to make a decision on the proposal from the state Game and Fish Department during a regular meeting Thursday in Clayton.
Regulated furbearer trapping on the Gila and Apache national forests was banned last summer by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, a supporter of the wolf reintroduction effort.
The commission extended the ban last fall, giving researchers more time to study the risks of trapping and snaring to wolves.
The researchers are done with their work but a report summarizing their findings has yet to be made public, and conservation groups have accused the Game and Fish Department of colluding with trapping and livestock groups to influence the commission's decision-making process.
Despite a public records request, the conservationists claim the agency has refused to provide information related to meetings the department allegedly held with industry groups on the trapping issue.
The department, in a letter sent Thursday to the conservationists, denied claims that it hid documents.
Wendy Keefover, director of WildEarth Guardians' carnivore protection program, said she believes the commissioners have made up their minds about the ban. Most of them were appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who has expressed concerns about the wolf program's impacts on ranchers.
"It's a kangaroo court. We don't think we're going to get a fair hearing," Keefover said.
WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club claim documents they received as part of their records request indicate that agency officials met with the Sportsmen and Landowners' Coalition about the trapping rules on June 16. The agency provided no records of the meeting except emails that tangentially referenced it.
The groups claim the documents also show a department employee circulated a petition for the New Mexico Trappers Association in support of trapping.
Reconsideration of the trapping ban stems from a recommendation made by a small business task force appointed by Martinez after she took office in January.
The furbearer rules were specifically mentioned in an April report prepared by the task force, which reviewed dozens of rules in an effort to identify ways the state could be more business-friendly and encourage economic development.
The panel suggested local economies could be "enhanced" by removing the trapping ban in wolf territory.
While it's unclear what the researchers found when studying the risks to wolves, an executive order signed by Richardson last summer noted that traps do not differentiate between wolves and the animals for which traps were set.
He said at the time there were six confirmed and three probable Mexican gray wolves trapped in New Mexico's portion of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in the past eight years. Five wolves were injured by the traps, two severely enough to require leg amputations.
Conservationists had applauded Richardson's stance and the commission's decision last year to extend the ban, calling it a milestone for wolves in the Southwest.
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 after it was all but wiped out due to hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns.
The federal government started its reintroduction effort along the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1998 with the release of 11 wolves. Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by 2006. The current count is closer to 50.
The reintroduction has been hampered by illegal shootings, court battles, complaints from ranchers who have lost livestock and pets to the wolves, and concerns by environmentalists over the way the program has been managed.
Another blow came just last month when the Game and Fish Department voted to pull out of the project. The state had provided a handful of employees to help with trapping, transplanting and collaring wolves. They also worked on projects aimed at reducing conflicts between wolves and livestock.