Although population viability analysis (PVA) can be an important tool for strengthening endangered species recovery efforts, the extent to which such analyses remain embedded in the social process of recovery planning is often unrecognized. We analyzed two recovery plans for the Mexican wolf that were developed using similar data and methods but arrived at contrasting conclusions as to appropriate recovery goals or criteria. We found that approximately half of the contrast arose from uncertainty regarding biological data, with the remainder divided between policy-related decisions and mixed biological-policy factors. Contrasts arose from both differences in input parameter values and how parameter uncertainty informed the level of precaution embodied in resulting criteria. Policy-related uncertainty originated from contrasts in thresholds for acceptable risk and disagreement as to how to define endangered species recovery. Rather than turning to PVA to produce politically acceptable definitions of recovery that appear science-based, agencies should clarify the nexus between science and policy elements in their decision processes. The limitations we identify in endangered-species policy and how PVAs are conducted as part of recovery planning must be addressed if PVAs are to fulfill their potential to increase the odds of successful conservation outcomes.