The slogan spotted on signs outside New Mexico Game Commission meetings, on bumper stickers around the state and quoted by conservationists reads: More wolves, less politics.

Whether that's what conservationists find when the US Fish and Wildlife Service releases a long-awaited recovery plan for Mexican gray wolves remains to be seen. A federal district court judge signed off this month on a settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed against the federal wildlife management agency over the ongoing absence of a formal recovery plan for this most rare subspecies of wolf. Now the agency has a deadline of Nov. 30, 2017 for completing that plan.

"We hope this is a turning point in the race to save the Mexican wolf—a unique, beautiful animal of the American Southwest—from extinction," Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement issued shortly after the court decision was announced on Oct. 18.

For 40 years, Mexican wolves have hovered in a sort of recovery limbo—an endangered species managed as an "experimental population." That designation extended more flexibility to land managers on behalf of ranchers to remove and kill wolves when they interfered with or killed cattle, but conservationists argue the leeway has given too much room to the livestock industry and leaves wolves at risk of extinction. Both sides have called for an updated plan for how the species is managed, but the process has stalled out often over state objections and disagreements over how to deploy, as the Endangered Species Act mandates, the "best available science."

The plan is subject to an independent peer review before its completion, and plaintiffs, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Endangered Wolf Center and the states of Arizona and Utah, will be updated every six months between now and the deadline, according to the settlement terms. The public will also have a chance to review the plan before it's finalized. The state of New Mexico had at one point joined the list of plaintiffs, but dropped out of the settlement, calling the deadline too hasty.

"Recovery of the Mexican wolf remains our goal," reads the official response from the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We aim to support natural wild wolf population growth and improve population genetics, eventually leading to species recovery and state management of the species."

Mexican wolves were nearly wiped out in the 20th century during the decades-long campaign to rid the West of predators that threatened cattle ranchers. Over the nearly two decades since Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the American Southwest in 1998, population growth has inched forward and now faces a crisis, while public lands ranchers continue to come into conflict with wolves that turn to cattle as a food source. The Mexican wolf population peaked in 2014 at 110, and is now estimated around the low 90s. Mexican wolves face a gene pool in which all wild wolves are as genetically similar as siblings, jeopardizing healthy reproduction.

Where wolf advocates and the feds agree is that some of the genetic diversity in the more than 240 Mexican wolves in captive breeding facilities needs to be added to the wild. To that end, this summer the Fish and Wildlife Service placed six captive-born pups into three wild dens to be reared. At least two pups survived. But the alpha female for the Sheepherders Baseball Park Pack, the first to take in foster pups this spring, was found dead in September and the fate of her pups remains unknown.

New Mexico has not cooperated with recent efforts, going so far as to secure an injunction against Mexican wolf releases earlier this year after the feds moved forward with cross-fostering despite the state's refusal to sign off on permits to do so. The state Game and Fish director denied those permits over concerns about the lack of a recovery plan and its final population targets. New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish declined to make a statement on the settlement.

This recovery plan draft won't be the first in an effort that began in 1977 with the capture of five remaining wolves in Mexico. A draft was said to be forthcoming in 1995, shortly before federal officials reintroduced captive-bred wolves to the wild. A team convened in the early 2000s to write a plan, and again a decade later. Those drafts have languished, says Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, while planning meetings have seen fewer scientists and more representatives from state game departments.

"It's been hijacked by political forces, and that's where it's going now. But we at least have a date for when it will get done, and it's still to be decided what the actual contents will be," he tells SFR. "They can no longer keep promising it's around the corner."

The next step will be what the science is and where they allow wolves to recover.
-Bryan Bird, Defenders of Wildlife

A US Fish and Wildlife Service-convened panel that drafted a recovery plan in the early 2010s suggested a recovered, self-sustaining population would consist of three populations and a total of more than 750 wolves spreading into southern Colorado and Utah, with corridors of connectivity among them. That draft was shelved following objections by the states concerned, but conservationists' analysis still echoes that image.

"Now we have a recovery plan coming, the next step will be what the science is and where they allow wolves to recover," Bird, of Defenders, tells SFR.

The matter could well land back in court if conservation groups don't see the service using the best science available.

Though some things have changed in the intervening years, Robinson says of the 2012 plan, "It's a darn good draft and we wish they would use it."

Arizona's governor celebrated the opportunity to ditch "top-down, out-of-touch management from Washington DC" and declared in a press release, "We're looking forward to working with other Western states to develop a new recovery plan that makes sense for us and provides real-world guidelines for measuring success."

Posturing from the US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests it's likely to propose a recovery area that doesn't extend any farther north than I-40. Instead, attention seems directed—as pressure from states including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah has called for—south of the Mexican border.