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Species Spat 

Are agency turf battles hurting wildlife?

As we humans crowd Arizona, we're crowding wildlife out. It does not take a rocket scientist to fathom how dwindling rivers, razed deserts and oceans of fresh concrete might just push many species--from pygmy owls and garter snakes to wee top minnows--to the razor's edge of extinction.

But pell-mell growth isn't the only threat. According to biologists and conservationists, turf battles between state and federal wildlife officials are also taking a toll. In particular, critics contend that the Arizona Game and Fish Department has devolved from a conservation champion into a conservative hotbed, steeped in resentment of federal oversight and grudging to embrace the Endangered Species Act.

As it happens, the ESA is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And that's what sticks in the state's craw, say critics. For evidence, they point to Arizona's enthusiasm for removing the Southwestern bald eagle from endangered-species status, or often-floundering efforts at recovering the Mexican gray wolf.

Top Arizona Game and Fish officials contend that federal programs only make their jobs harder. When The Arizona Republic ran a story about the eagle in January, for example, Game and Fish Director Duane Shroufe even complained that "the Endangered Species Act gets in our way of managing species."

Such chatter irks Daniel Patterson, Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The anti-ESA viewpoint is strong within the Arizona Department of Game and Fish," he says. "If Director Shroufe is going to continue with that aggressive, outdated view, he should probably be replaced."

Shroufe argues that his Arizona Republic statement was misconstrued. Still, he does have a bone to pick. "Many times, administration of the ESA has gotten in our way," he says. "I think the Endangered Species Act is a great thing, but if you look at what Congress intended years ago (in creating the act), and how it's turned out, I think there's been some real problems that get in the way of successfully recovering species."

He cites the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl--recently and controversially pulled from the endangered-species list--as a case in point. When the embattled owls were still listed, "we got down to the point where we knew there were only a handful left. But it took us several years to get (federal) permission to put transmitters on them so we knew what was going on."

The long-struggling Sonoran pronghorn are another symbol of federal hurdles, he says. "That population nearly winked out before we finally could do something. We had a (Fish and Wildlife) regional director who was able to give us permission under ESA to do some work on collaring and transmitting, so we could learn where those (pronghorns) needed to go."

But initially, such permission had been denied. "We had a (federal) individual making decisions that we couldn't do something, because the pronghorn is listed as endangered," he says. "Then ... we get another person in administration saying we can do something. And those two answers ... one keeps you from actively managing a species that may go into extinction. And the other one lets you--hopefully successfully--work on active management of the species."

The real answer, says Shroufe, is making Arizona an equal partner with the feds. And already he touts progress: "We're the only state in the nation that's able to have an (agreement) with the Fish and Wildlife Service to convey some of those authorities over to my agency. For example, I now sign off on all plans for species recovery."

A call to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown was not returned.

But others contend that Shroufe is blowing smoke, especially since his department has long signed off on such recovery plans--and even helped design a few. Instead, they see anti-federal ideology at work.

"Arizona is one of the states quite involved in the states-rights movement for fish and wildlife," says biologist Sally Stefferud, who spent 20 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "In public statements, they call federal listings a detriment, because it causes too much controversy and causes people to oppose the species. But I think that's just rhetoric."

So does Kieran Suckling, policy director at Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity. State officials "believe they have the God-given right to be the manager of species," he says. "But in the typical instance, they are opposing conservation. They opposed the listing of the Mexican spotted owl; they opposed the listing of the pygmy owl; they are pushing to get the bald eagle and the Apache trout off the (endangered-species) list. So their interest is always in less conservation, not more conservation."

Arizona Game and Fish's support for de-listing the bald eagle is perfect example, says Suckling. While Arizona argues that it can protect eagles better than the feds, "when you look at the state's strategy for eagle recovery, there's nothing there. How many eagles should there be for recovery? Undetermined. What is their target for the number of nesting sites? Undetermined. How much habitat protection is needed? Undetermined."

Suckling calls the Mexican gray wolf another symbol of the agency's rightward drift. He says Arizona Game and Fish championed wolf recovery when it began in the 1990s. But conservative governors then began stacking the department's governing commission with pro-hunting, pro-ranching members who were hostile to wildlife in general, and to the wolf in particular.

"And as the years progressed, the anti-wolf mentality seeped further and further into the department's administration," he says. "It's to the point that Game and Fish is part of a state junta--along with New Mexico--that's pushing to kill wolves that go near cows. You will find them advocating for the ranchers' side and not the wolves' side."

But to Shroufe, that's just part of a delicate balancing act. "We're using adaptive management," he says, "to determine how we're gong to most successfully have a wolf population that's permanent in Arizona. That may have a lot to do with cooperating with the ranchers more, and it may have a lot to do with taking (out) problem wolves."

Still, he calls the program a success. "There are 59 wolves that we can account for. It's not a recovery goal--we don't have a recovery goal yet--but the reintroduction (goal) was 100 wolves. We get a (good) whelping season this spring, and we may have 100 wolves."

That doesn't convince critics such as Suckling.

"The old Game and Fish would have cried foul over the wolf situation," he says. "In the late '80s and early '90s, they were looked upon as one of the most progressive leaders among the Western states.

"But today, Arizona Game and Fish always wants less protection for wildlife, not more. And they never come forward with any scientific arguments or better management plans. That's why other states don't look to us for leadership anymore."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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