As Utah officials had hoped, a draft federal plan for the recovery of the endangered Mexican gray wolf does not include Utah or Colorado in the area envisioned for the wolf's range.
Released Thursday after decades of delay, the proposal appears to deviate sharply from a draft five years ago, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists considered including southern Utah. The small-bodied wolf species once roamed the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
The earlier draft pegged the target for recovery at 750 animals in the United States. The new draft lowers the target to 320 animals sustained over eight years — still triple the current U.S. population — with another 170 in Mexico.
The draft drew a quick rebuke from conservationists who say it's geared toward a political objective, rather than the biological one required by the Endangered Species Act.
"This reckless plan would turn over management of these unique and beautiful animals to wolf-hating state officials well-before they're fully recovered and secure," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Independent biologists have concluded that the lobos' recovery in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains regions is essential to the long-term recovery of the species."
Utah officials had long criticized the direction Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) wolf-recovery team had been heading with its call to establish more northerly populations. Without offering much proof, the Wildlife Board alleged that an expanded recovery area would lead to the "introduction" of Mexican wolves into Utah and dramatic losses in wildlife available for hunting. Utah-based anti-predator group Big Game Forever hailed the new draft as a victory for sportsmen.
"This will protect herds of elk, mule deer, and wild sheep populations in vitals areas of the Southern Rockies," group president Ryan Benson wrote in an email to supporters.
A revised plan is long overdue, needed to replace one adopted in 1982. A court order requires the FWS to complete the revision by the end of November.
Unlike its northern cousin, the Mexican wolf has not thrived since it was reintroduced into the Blue Range straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border. Now the species is further imperiled by a loss of genetic diversity, yet FWS officials say the revised plan would address such threats and recover the lobo in 25 to 35 years.
"At the time of recovery, the service expects Mexican wolf populations to be stable or increasing in abundance, well-distributed geographically within their historical range, and genetically diverse," the agency said in a statement.
The plan restricts the recovery zone to south of Interstate 40. There is evidence that the Mexican wolf's historic range extended farther north, perhaps into Utah, though this possibility is under intense debate.
Today, 113 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, inhabit New Mexico and Arizona, with another 30 to 35 in Mexico, according to Robinson.
Robinson says the number of wolves to be introduced from captivity is arbitrary; the FWS wants 22 of these animals to reach reproductive age before the wolf can be deemed recovered. Those wolves are needed to introduce fresh genes into the wild population, Robinson says.
But the plan does not require the animals to pass their genes down to offspring, Robinson pointed out. "You can put a bullet in each of these wolves when they reach two years and call it recovery," he said.
He believes inbreeding will remain a serious threat to lobo survival unless the recovery includes three distinct, although interconnected, populations.
The plan has been posted on the Federal Register, where the public can submit comments until Aug. 29.
Former Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan, who has long advocated keeping Mexican wolves out of Utah, has recently taken the helm at the FWS in an acting capacity and would likely be the official to sign off on any final plan.
Regional FWS officials say the proposed recovery plan calls for more agreements between states and the federal government regarding how many wolves are released into the wild, where they are released and over what time period. Environmentalists have pushed for years for more captive wolves to be released, but ranchers and elected leaders in rural communities have pushed back because the predators sometimes attack domestic livestock and wild game.
Last year, the Interior Department's internal watchdog said the service had not fulfilled its obligation to remove Mexican gray wolves that preyed on pets and cattle.
The state of New Mexico has made complaints about the way the program has been managed, and in 2015 it refused to issue a permit to the FWS to release more of the predators in the state.
In a case before a federal appeals court, Utah and 18 other states argue that the Endangered Species Act requires the FWS to cooperate with them on how species are reintroduced within their borders. Federal attorneys say the law allows the agency to go around a state, if necessary, to save a species.
The court has yet to rule, and until it does, releases in New Mexico are prohibited.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.