Rain clouds roiled over Truth or Consequences as about 70 people filed into the Civic Center auditorium to watch US Fish and Wildlife Service staff scroll through a presentation on the recently released draft plan for Mexican gray wolf recovery. It’s been 20 years since the wolves were reintroduced to the wild, and 40 since they were added to the Endangered Species List. The document introduced this summer is the first plan aimed at fully recovering the species.

At the July 20 meeting, four staffers from the federal agency faced an audience spotted with cowboy hats and green T-shirts declaring "Wolves without boundaries." A professional moderator had been flown in from out of state to keep people on time, on task and following a code of conduct that allocated each attendee a single question and related follow-up. Rules banned signs along with any sort of audible response to other speakers.

The sheriff and state police attended—one would have thought to keep the peace as well, until the sheriff took the microphone to ask whether Sierra County's commissioners could ban wolf releases in their county. The answer is "not really;" the Endangered Species Act compels recovery, and this is a core piece of their historic range. But whether wolves will be released in Sierra County is a matter for the county to take up with the state of New Mexico.

Under the proposed plan, the choice of when, how many, and under what circumstances wolves will be added to the wild population in New Mexico is left to the state—the same state that withdrew from the federally run program to recover Mexican wolves in 2011 shortly after Gov. Susana Martinez took office, and that sued the federal government for releasing wolves.

The wild population desperately needs to grow now, not five years from now—according to both wildlife advocates and Fish and Wildlife Service officials. But five years from now is the first scheduled review of the program by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Albuquerque’s BioPark Zoo is the only place many New Mexicans will ever see a live wolf.
Albuquerque’s BioPark Zoo is the only place many New Mexicans will ever see a live wolf. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

“By abdicating the service’s authority to release these genetically important captive lobos to the wild, by relying primarily on recovery success for the species in Mexico as sufficient to achieve Endangered Species Act goals here, and by failing to employ the best available science in determining population abundance and geographic distribution goals, we argue that the plan fails to ensure the continued conservation and survival of the endangered Mexican wolf,” says Kelly Nokes, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

Sherry Barrett, coordinator of the Mexican wolf recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service, insists that the agency will maintain oversight of the program, while following Endangered Species Act provisions that call for collaborating with states as much as possible. Wildlife advocates argue that the plan is giving too much authority to states that have a historically hostile relationship with Mexican wolves, though that's just one among many concerns.

"This long-overdue plan to guide recovery efforts falls woefully short of actually recovering wolves," Nokes says. "To us, it reads more like a draft extinction plan that was dreamed up by the wolves' most hostile opponents."

Ask ranchers, though, and they contend it's the wolf lovers the federal government is kowtowing to. Public feedback from ranchers and outfitters described finding calves and elk slaughtered by wolves, among other frustrations with trying to graze cattle or hunt elk in a landscape shared with a large carnivore. They question why the federal government insists on continuing what appears to be a failing effort to recover this species.

"There's no kill switch for this program," says Tim Roberson, who works for a rancher with 200 head of cattle in the Gila National Forest, in wolf territory. "In every way, it's a loss."

That the plan seems to please no one, an Albuquerque Journal editorial recently pointed out, could be the sign of a compromise. Instead, what seems to have been compromised is any real chance at Mexican wolf recovery. The editorial posits that the proposal "contains some serious flaws that appear to place political expedience ahead of science."

The plan sets a goal of an eight-year average population of 320 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and 170 in Mexico. Two populations provide a buffer against extinction, but those two aren't connected, meaning wolves won't be able to intermingle and swap genetics. That's among the plan's flaws listed by wildlife advocates. So, too, is the number—it's seen as outrageously small, and the hard line at 380 in the US, at which any management actions to reduce the population can be undertaken, is unprecedented.

"There's no other recovery plan that exists that puts a cap on the animals," says Michael Dax with Defenders of Wildlife. "It's unique to this plan, and it's purely political."

I-40, an arbitrary, human-drawn line bisecting Arizona and New Mexico that has only loose ties to previous wolf range or existing suitable habitat, is used as the northern boundary for the species' recovery in the draft.

This plan would guide recovery efforts for the decades to come—and it will certainly be decades. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it'll take 25 to 35 years to see Mexican wolves come off the endangered species list, and an estimated price tag of $235 million.

Anson Stevens-Bollen

“If threats continue,” Tracy Melbihess of the Fish and Wildlife Service said during the Truth or Consequences meeting, “and the population doesn’t grow and we’re unable to get releases done, recovery could take longer.”

By the mid-1920s, following decades of concentrated effort to shoot and poison the predators to make space for incoming settlers and ranchers, wolves were no longer considered a significant predator in the Southwest. The wolf recovery program began in 1998 with the release of 11 Mexican wolves into Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. New Mexican officials declined to participate in the program at that time, so Mexican wolves were not released in the state until 2000, when nine wolves were reintroduced to the Gila National Forest. It was the first time in 70 years New Mexico had a known resident pack.

The reintroduced populations were designated "experimental," allowing wildlife managers flexibility in handling them—namely, that even though the animals were endangered, they could be trapped and moved to captivity or shot for depredating livestock, or even leaving the boundaries of the recovery area, concentrated on the mountains in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

In addition to the 113 Mexican wolves in the US, at last count, there are 28 in Mexico, and another 270 in 50 facilities around the country. They're primarily descended from a captive breeding program grown from just seven individuals. The wild population now is roughly as genetically similar as siblings, impairing their ability to reproduce and to fight disease. So success hinges on seeing 22 reintroduced wolves survive to breeding age and add their genetics to the wild population, according to the draft recovery plan.

Although annual catch-and-collar operations for the population count include blood tests, there's no criteria written in the plan that requires testing to see how well those genes have been mixing in. This is among the plan's worrisome components, says Dax with Defenders. Because about one in five survive their first year in the wild, getting 22 likely means releasing more than 70 wolves. That's as many as were released in the first five years of the US program, and almost double what Mexico has released since starting its program in 2011. This is a question of needing to deepen the gene pool, and quickly, so any single wolf will have a greater effect in a smaller population, Melbihess points out. As in, releases need to happen soon.

The initial plan, drafted in 1982, aimed for 100 wolves at a time when there was still a question of whether wolves could be recovered at all.

"This was not a recovery criteria, it was just a hedge against extinction," Melbihess told meeting attendees. "Over time, we outgrew that recovery plan and have needed to revise it for a while."

Efforts at a revision have stalled out multiple times. Most recently, a recovery team drafted a plan in 2012 that called for three interconnected population groups, each of roughly 250 members, for no fewer than 750 wolves total in a geographic area that included northern portions of New Mexico in the nearby Carson National Forest, the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and the Grand Canyon region in southern Utah.

Conservation Biology published a study in 2013 that echoed that those three areas, each home to swaths of public lands, were suitable. They carry not only sufficient elk and deer to support Mexican wolves, but have fewer cattle. Conflicts with ranchers have been an ongoing issue for Mexican wolf recovery. Gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death for the wolves, and a study in the Journal of Mammalogy this year suggests the problem of poaching has been significantly underestimated.

In Arizona and New Mexico, the proposal was met with outcry over the population. Colorado and Utah resisted the idea of seeing wolves back on their landscape. The recovery team was put on hold, and while never officially disbanded, also never reconvened.

There are many visions for recovery, says Barrett, who oversees the program, and that was one. The service has since moved on to another.

"When we started back up again, the agency decided that we would do a different focus, working with the states and Mexico, the Forest Service and these independent scientists," she tells SFR.

Stakeholder meetings were held over a 14-month period with representatives from the Four Corners states. The effort started with the same modeling software used by the previous recovery team, and then began tweaking some of the variables, beginning with adopting I-40 as the northern boundary.

"There's a lot of debate in the literature about where else wolves occurred … but really the core historic Mexican wolf population occurred pretty much in that area," Barrett says.

Setting that boundary apparently halved the final population target—it became a question of not how many wolves were needed, but how many wolves could live in the designated habitat and have a 90 percent chance of persisting for 100 years. That goal needed to ally, as well, with a population count that would not negatively impact cattle or elk herds.

"That's the number set to coexist on a working landscape," says Barrett. "We're trying to find that balance. … It's a challenge."

Increasing genetic diversity for wolf offspring is key to recovering the species.
Increasing genetic diversity for wolf offspring is key to recovering the species. | Bob Haarmans

Pressed about the question of suitable habitat above I-40, Barrett tells SFR, “Obviously, it didn’t stop at Interstate 40, but that’s an easy line that can be used for demarcation and that’s what we used in our experimental population rule in 1998, and we continued that into the 2015 rule.”

South of that line is what's been seen as socially acceptable.

"Social tolerance isn't written into the Endangered Species Act," counters Nokes of WildEarth Guardians. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has the duty to recover the species to the point that the act's protections are no longer required."

The agency has been hammered from all sides.

In 2015, governors from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah wrote to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and then-US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, reminding them that "Mexican wolf recovery is an incredibly complex and contentious issue" and that "if recovery is to succeed, it will require the support and participation of affected states." They criticized the service for appointing "non-neutral individuals" to the recovery workshops, and argued that considering population first, rather than geography, was a "scientifically flawed approach."

"Recovery of the Mexican wolf cannot and will not be achieved if the Service does not recognize that the majority of Mexican wolf recovery must occur in Mexico," the letter reads. "Our states oppose the expansion, release and occupancy of Mexican wolves north of I-40."

The Utah Wildlife Board and state legislature preemptively passed legislation, once wolves come off the Endangered Species List in Utah, to allow ranchers to shoot them if they're seen as a danger to livestock and to remove any wolves that attempt to establish a pack in the state. In Colorado as well, the legislature has passed a resolution to oppose releasing any wolves in the state—in 1982, 1989 and again in 2016, citing concerns for the big game population and the recreation economy it supports and the livestock ranching industry.

Yet stakeholders from these states guided recovery. Why would Colorado and Utah stay involved if the historic range doesn't include those states? You'll have to ask them, Barrett says.

Dax argues that it seems those states stayed involved largely to oppose the idea that the Mexican wolf recovery plan reach into their states.

Instead, everyone points at Mexico. The plan must "headline a Mexico-centric approach rather than the translocation of the subspecies out of its historical range into new, previously uninhabited ranges of northern Arizona/New Mexico and southern Utah/Colorado," the letter continues. Even the workshops themselves, the letter argues, should be held in Mexico.

The effort to recover Mexican gray wolves has included both Mexican and US biologists since the US Fish and Wildlife Service appointed a Mexican Wolf Recovery Team in 1979. Critics, including Defenders of Wildlife, have pointed out that the US government has no jurisdiction there, so if that country's politics change, there's no mandating that they continue participating in this program. Additionally, because the program there relies on private landowners' participation, one individual could sway its success.

The same Conservation Biology study that suggested Mexican wolves would be best supported by habitat in northern Arizona and southern Utah and Colorado found that while "the majority of the subspecies' historic range occurred in Mexico … high human-associated mortality risk and low prey density within potential core areas in Mexico suggests that these areas are unlikely to support populations of over 100 individuals." Again, the plan calls for 170 wolves in Mexico.

Much of Mexico's limited funding for endangered species recovery is committed to the vaquita porpoise, thought to have dwindled down to less than 30 still in the Gulf of Mexico. At an April Arizona Game and Fish Department meeting, there was talk that the states of New Mexico and Arizona would need to commit to sending Mexico money to cover the wolf plan.

Barrett has repeatedly stated the US Fish and Wildlife Service is not abdicating its responsibility to Mexican wolves, either by partnering with Mexico or by granting so much authority to states.

"Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to be leading recovery of Mexican wolves," Barrett said at the Albuquerque meeting. "We'll be collaborating with state partners on releases. We work now with Arizona on releases, and hope to see New Mexico come back in."

New Mexico withdrew from US Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery efforts in 2011, and has subsequently declined to sign off on permits for Mexican wolf releases as well as sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for moving forward with those releases anyway. The service cited a genetic emergency for releasing wolves now. The state argues it didn't want to participate in the program without knowing its end goals.

At a September House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee meeting on federal management of Mexican wolves, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval testified: "While no single factor is to blame for the lack of success recovering the Mexican wolf, one factor looms larger than others: the service's failure to cooperate with the states."

That failure had resulted in a "cloud of uncertainty" around the quest to conserve Mexican wolves, she said. She criticized the government for running a 40-year program, at a $25 million cost, that had yet to move Mexican wolves from the Endangered Species List.

This was at least a year into the 14 months of meetings the service held with states to draft this recovery plan. It's unclear whether Sandoval was disregarding that effort in her comments, or still didn't see the service as a willing collaborator despite that effort. The answer won't likely come to light until an Aug. 24 game commission meeting, when the commission is set to consider the service's plan.

The commission allocated a total of 30 minutes for public comment, though the issue has previously seen meetings packed to overflowing and a guard at the door turning interested parties away. The agenda includes a possible vote.

"I'm angry and dumbfounded," said wolf advocate Brenda McKenna during the Albuquerque meeting on the plan. "I've been to many New Mexico Game and Fish meetings and … I simply don't have any confidence at all they can be a steward of the Mexican wolf."

If it's any hint of what's about to happen, the looming consideration of the plan by the game commission comes under the direction of Paul Kienzle. He's chair of the board and attended the service's presentation of the plan in Albuquerque in an unofficial capacity, calling the new proposal "a great step forward."

In response to requests for an interview about the document that it has had in hand for more than a month, Dan Williams, assistant chief of information for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, emailed the following statement: "The department feels it would be inappropriate to comment about the Mexican wolf draft recovery plan until we have had a chance to thoroughly review it, which most likely will be around the end of August."

The state has yet to drop its lawsuit against the federal government for moving forward with releases without state-approved permits.

"The idea that they're going to turn around and be good partners is a great leap of faith," says Dax, with Defenders of Wildlife.

"We're extremely concerned that the service is giving such a vital facet of authority over to two states that have been so demonstrably hostile to allowing Mexican wolf recovery efforts to occur within their borders," says Nokes, with WildEarth Guardians.

She points to the active litigation against the service.

"Arizona can't really be trusted either—they filed an amicus brief, a friend of the court brief, in that same case," she adds. "The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to cooperate with the states to some extent, but federal powers still pre-empt that state authority. And the federal entity, the Fish and Wildlife Service, needs to live up to the mandate of the law. It needs to carry out its responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, regardless of what the states think is best."

Even if New Mexico does get on board, says Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity—a party along with Defenders of Wildlife in the lawsuit that produced a court order with a November deadline for finalizing this recovery plan—"there's so much about this plan that's worrisome. … The mess caused by mismanagement that's led to inbreeding—really, to pull out of that should not be subject to whatever the latest political whims are going to be," he says. He suggests instead that wolf releases be pre-scheduled and the genetic diversity in the gene pool directly monitored, so it's ensured that recovery moves ahead regardless of who is governor.

"They leave the Mexican wolf's survival up to the winds of politics," he says, "and that's not prudent."

The public comment period is open until Tuesday Aug. 29, and the plan is due to be finalized by Nov. 30. To comment, visit regulations.gov and search code FWS-R2-ES-2017-0036.

The Game Commission meeting to consider the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan begins at 9 am Thursday Aug. 24 at the Marriott Pyramid North (5151 San Francisco Road NE, Albuquerque, 505-821-3333).