The federal government has finalized a long-awaited recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf, with the goal of increasing its numbers in the wild until it can be removed from the endangered species list.
The plan relies on what the government experts say is the "best available science" and is meant to consider state and local interests, according to a statement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Mexican wolves are on the road to recovery in the Southwest thanks to the cooperation, flexibility and hard work of our partners,” said Amy Lueders, the agency's Southwest regional director, in a statement on Wednesday.
"States, tribes, landowners, conservation groups, the captive breeding facilities, federal agencies and citizens of the Southwest can be proud of their roles in saving this sentinel of wilderness,” Lueders said.
Nevertheless, the plan's merits were intensely debated as soon as it was released and wolf advocacy groups have already signaled their intent to sue the government over the document.
A long debate over wolf recovery
Mexican gray wolf recovery has polarized the Southwest for decades, resulting in court battles and fueling the debate over the federal government's reach. For many ranchers, wolf recovery is an attack on their cattle and way of life. But environmentalists see it as their last hope to save a species that settlers to the region drove to the brink of extinction.
The wolf was so close to extinction when the agency wrote its first recovery plan in 1982 that the plan's authors could not envision delisting them from the endangered species list.
After multiple attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to update the plan with a path for the Mexican gray wolf off the endangered-species list, a court order gave the agency a Nov. 30, 2017, deadline.
The new plan, outlined a day before the deadline, would delist the wolf when its population in the wild averages 320 in the U.S. and 200 in Mexico over eight years. The wolf would also need to meet certain gene diversity benchmarks in both populations.
At least 113 Mexican gray wolves roamed Arizona and New Mexico in 2016, while Mexico now has 31.
The plan also would not allow the release of wolves north of Interstate 40. Conservationists say the wolf needs to expand its territory if it is to remain healthy.
'A regulatory nightmare'
Some opponents of wolf recovery immediately branded the plan an over-reach.
"This recovery plan is far beyond recovery," said Patrick Bray, the executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association. The recovery plan calls for too many wolves and ranchers will suffer when the species inevitably preys on their cattle, he said.
Ranchers have long fought attempts to establish wolf packs in the mountains of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Wildlife agencies release captive wolves into the wild periodically and monitor their movements.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in a statement on Wednesday, called the plan "another federal regulatory nightmare" for ranchers.
When wolves do prey on cattle, ranchers have several ways to receive compensation, such as appealing to the Arizona Livestock Loss Board, said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council also encourages ranchers to share techniques that reduce conflicts between livestock and wolves.
While Mexican gray wolves do prey on cattle, research shows they rely more heavily on native prey.
Cattle made up 8 percent of the species' diet from 1998 to 2001 in Arizona and New Mexico, while elk accounted for nearly 77 percent, researchers estimated in a 2006 study.
Preying on a rancher's livestock can cost the wolves their lives.
Conflicts between livestock and Mexican gray wolves are one of the wolves' greatest threats to survival, said Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
'Too few wolves in too few places'
An underlying problem with the new recovery plan is that about 40 percent of the wolves it strives to recover are in Mexico, where the abundance of natural prey is unknown, yet livestock is plentiful, Phillips said. Mexico lacks the large tracts of public lands that the U.S. has.
In 2012, Phillips co-authored a draft recovery plan for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that called for at least three populations averaging 750 for eight years, but the agency did not move forward with it.
Environmentalists have advocated for a third population to fight inbreeding, increase gene diversity and strengthen wolves' resilience to disease and other threats.
Their calls to establish another population at the Grand Canyon, however, have been met with stiff political opposition. Governors from multiple states, including Arizona and New Mexico, wrote a letter to the secretary of the Interior in 2015 to voice disapproval of the idea, citing concerns over loss of big game and livestock.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cuts off the Grand Canyon habitat by focusing the Mexican gray wolf's recovery to areas south of Interstate 40.
"The recovery plan leaves Mexican wolves in the lurch genetically because there would be too few wolves in too few places and not connected with each other," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The long series of legal challenges that led to the new recovery plan is not over. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, sent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a notice of their intent to sue, claiming the plan violates the Endangered Species Act.
Learn More About the Flawed Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan
~ Read the finalized Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan HERE.
~ Scientists and Wolf Biologists speak out against Recovery Plan
~ Below is the Draft Plan that was released in June of 2017 and "supporting" documents.
Additional Documentation Referenced in Draft Plan: