ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Despite a pending legal battle over efforts to reintroduce endangered Mexican gray wolves in the American Southwest, New Mexico has cleared the way for the federal government to place two captive-born wolf pups with wild foster families.
A permit issued this week by the state Game and Fish Department comes after a federal court recently lifted a temporary restraining order that had stopped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing more of the endangered animals.
While the state still plans to pursue its case in court, the 30-day permit allows for federal wildlife managers to place up to two pups in a den in the Gila National Forest as part of a project aimed at boosting the genetic diversity of wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona.
The permit states that for each pup released into a den, one pup must be removed and placed in captivity.
"As a consequence of this condition, there will be no net increase in the number of Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico," the permit reads.
The state is also requiring that any wild-born pups removed from established dens as a result of the permitted fostering effort and the future offspring of those pups not be released in New Mexico without prior approval from the Game and Fish Department.
The head of the wolf recovery effort signed off on the permit Tuesday, but federal officials said Thursday they could not immediately comment on the permit or their plans for the pups.
State game officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Only about 110 Mexican gray wolves live in the wild. The federal government added them to the endangered species list in 1976, and the Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing them to parts of their original range in New Mexico and Arizona in 1998.
New Mexico has complained about the way the program is managed, and in 2015 it refused to issue a permit to Fish and Wildlife to release more of the predators. Federal officials decided to release them anyway, citing an urgent need to expand the wild population to prevent inbreeding.
That triggered the court fight.
New Mexico and other states have argued that the Endangered Species Act requires Fish and Wildlife to cooperate with them on how species are reintroduced within their borders.
As for the wolves, New Mexico contends there's no way to determine whether proposed releases would conflict with the state's own wildlife management because federal officials have yet to develop a comprehensive recovery plan for the wolves. The federal agency is under a court order to release a draft plan later this year.
Environmentalists who are pushing for more releases described the permit's conditions as unreasonable.
"They have full authority to release these wolves," the Center for Biological Diversity's Michael Robinson said of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "They don't need to get New Mexico's permission and they shouldn't agree to remove wolves. This is a recovery effort and the numbers should be going up."