FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to a deadline to craft a recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf after the agency was accused in federal court of dragging its feet for decades.
The settlement filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Arizona still needs to be approved by a judge, and it’s expected to be challenged by farm bureaus in three states. It would require a recovery plan to be complete by November 2017 with periodic status updates provided to parties in a lawsuit filed against the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The lawsuit argued that the recovery plan is long overdue for a species that has struggled to gain a foothold in the Southwest. The most recent annual survey released in February shows at least 97 wolves live in forested lands in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, a figure that marked the first decline in the population in four years.
Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Wednesday that the agency remains committed to boosting the population and improving genetic diversity. He said work on a recovery plan will shift from a team-based model to one that has Fish and Wildlife taking the lead and seeking assistance as needed to meet the deadline.
“It’s an aggressive schedule for a complex recovery equation,” he said.
Environmental groups, Arizona and Utah are on board with the settlement. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the state of Colorado objected to the November 2017 deadline for the recovery plan that will be peer reviewed, but it agreed not to contest the settlement.
The Mexican gray wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976. The first captive-bred wolves were released into the wild in 1998, with a goal of having 350 for a sustainable population, Humphrey said.
Environmentalists have been pushing for an expanded range and for more captive-bred wolves to be released in Arizona and New Mexico, but those efforts haven’t been backed by surrounding states over concerns about losing livestock to wolves and encroachment in urban areas.
Blair Dunn, an attorney representing farm bureaus in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and other groups, said the settlement places an unfair burden on the American public when the wolves’ historical range includes much of Mexico.
“You’re creating a new range for it where it wasn’t historically and that means it’s going to have a different set of interactions with humans and livestock,” he said.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said he’s hopeful the recovery plan won’t come too late.
“The Mexican gray wolf is very, very close to extinction in large part because of genetic reasons, lack of genetic diversity in the wild wolf population that is the result of years and years of mismanagement,” he said. “It may be too late but hopefully not.”