A federal judge has approved a settlement requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to finish a long-overdue recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf within a year.
U.S. Judge Jennifer Zipps in the District of Arizona on Monday approved the agreement reached in April by wolf advocacy groups, the states of Utah and Arizona, and the service.
The settlement compels Fish and Wildlife to complete a species recovery plan by the end of November 2017 that sets parameters for its management of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program, including where wolves should be allowed to roam as well as population targets.
The service has failed to finish a recovery plan three times since the first plan was adopted in 1982.
New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department, which intervened in the case, declined to join the settlement “due to the overly aggressive time frame it specifies,” a spokesman told the Journal in April.
Game and Fish has been at odds with the service over the wolf program for years and has urged a new recovery plan. Game and Fish did not respond to requests for comment.
“The wolves have been in a political tug of war,” said Bryan Bird, the Santa Fe-based Southwest program director of Defenders of Wildlife. “We hope (the recovery plan) will be scientifically defensible, and we hope that it is going to resolve a lot of the disagreements.”
The settlement requires the recovery plan to consider “all available scientific and commercial information from appropriate state agencies and other entities,” including from New Mexico, and be supported by “an independent peer review.”
The population of Mexican wolves in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona has struggled despite 18 years of effort to reintroduce captive-bred animals to the wild.
The population was bred from just seven animals, which has constricted the gene pool; advocates say Fish and Wildlife hasn’t done enough to get genetically diverse wolves out of captivity and into the wild.
Opponents of the program, including many New Mexico ranchers in the wolf recovery area around the Gila National Forest, say the wolves are a menace to their cattle herds and pets.
There were 97 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona at last count in early 2016, according to Fish and Wildlife, down from 110 wolves the prior year.