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Fish and Wildlife unveils Mexican gray wolf recovery plan

A Mexican gray wolf at the Wildlife West Nature Park in Edgewood

A Mexican gray wolf at the Wildlife West Nature Park in Edgewood. (Randy Siner/For the Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its long-awaited Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan on Wednesday, the first update since 1982, and environmental groups say it doesn’t go far enough to protect the endangered subspecies.

A draft of it released in July received more than 100,000 public comments, said Sherry Barrett, the Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator with Fish and Wildlife. It also underwent multiple peer reviews.

“The final recovery plan does look fairly similar to the draft,” Barrett said during a conference callWednesday morning.

The target number of wolves required for down-listing the species from “endangered” to “threatened” – an average of at least 320 in the U.S. over a four-year period – remains the same, although the threshold for the Mexican population was increased from 170 to 200.

To be delisted entirely, the U.S. population, in New Mexico and Arizona, must average at least 320 wolves over an eight-year period.

There’s a second path to down-listing the species if the Mexican and U.S. populations each reach at least 150 with “an annual positive population growth rate.”

The plan also clarifies the role of New Mexico and Arizona in Mexican gray wolf releases. The draft had given states the authority to determine timing and location of releases. Barrett said Fish and Wildlife will have more say in the new plan and cooperate with states on determining release details.

New Mexico sued Fish and Wildlife last year to block it from releasing wolves in the state. That litigation is still pending.

Genetic diversity also has been a key concern. The final plan, as in the draft, determined that enough pups and adult wolves should be released to result in 22 surviving to breeding age – around 70 wolves, according to current mortality rates – to ensure adequate diversity.

The final plan did not adjust the wolf’s experimental population range, south of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico, which had been one of the primary criticisms of the recovery plan.

At last count, in 2016, there were 113 Mexican gray wolves in the United States and around 31 in Mexico.

Fish and Wildlife expects the wolf to be delisted in 25 to 35 years at a cost of $178.4 million and downlisted in 16 to 20 years. The plan will be re-evaluated at five and 10 years.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which, along with other environmental groups, filed the lawsuit that forced Fish and Wildlife to update the 1982 plan, said it remains inadequate. He said the group may sue over it.

“It’s really a bad plan that will very likely result in the extinction of the Mexican wolf,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s and other groups say the number of wolves required for recovery must be much higher, citing 2012 research that found three interconnected U.S. populations totaling 750 wolves would be optimal for recovery.

On the other side of the debate, New Mexico and Arizona ranchers have generally opposed protecting the Mexican gray wolf at all. They’ve also claimed that federal programs intended to reimburse them for losses due to wolf depredation are dysfunctional and inefficient.