Clustered in core packs of their own, nearly 100 supporters of the federal Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program line the back wall and fill the seats of a New Mexico Game Commission meeting in Santa Fe on Jan. 14.

They're here to encourage the state-appointed commissioners to overturn an earlier decision that had forced the privately owned Ladder Ranch to stop holding wolves for release into the wild—an essential piece of the federal program that's reintroducing the animals in the Southwest.

The commission isn't allowing public comment on that decision, so when the agenda turns to wolves, activists silently hold up small yellow signs with the words "More Wolves, Less Politics."

Signs serve as testimony during a Game Commission hearing.
Signs serve as testimony during a Game Commission hearing. | Laura Paskus

After the unanimous vote to uphold the decision and reject the permit, forced laughter fills the room when two different commissioners say the state isn't opposed to the program itself.

In response to the noise—short bursts of bitter cackling that sound like a cross between Dr. Evil in Austin Powers and the deer head in Evil Dead II—commissioners Robert Espinoza and William Montoya both tell people in the audience to laugh all they want.

"Our job is the management of wolves, not to just hold the door open and say, 'Here they come,'" Montoya says. "It's progressing, whether you want to believe that or not."

During all of this, Mike Phillips, director of Turner Endangered Species Fund, sits alongside department employees in the front row. Over the course of nearly two decades, Turner's 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch has held about 100 wolves, more than 30 of which have been released into the wild.

His light-colored hair is pulled back in a ponytail beneath a baseball cap, which gives the longtime Montana state senator a relatively bedraggled look. He and his youngest daughter are currently growing out their hair in support of a classmate with cancer.

Following the vote, Chairman Paul Kienzle addresses Phillips directly.

"You have an entire year to—not to go back to the drawing board, because it's not that dire, as I see it," Kienzle said, "but to find some middle ground."

Throughout the meeting, Phillips has remained still and quiet, looking straight ahead at the commissioners, occasionally nodding or resting an index finger against his mustache.

Phillips nods again when Kienzle says that if the Turner Endangered Species Fund decides to reapply, he might put it on the agenda as soon as April.

The vote doesn't mark an end, says Kienzle: "I prefer to get things done cooperatively, rather than butt heads."

Phillips nods again.

And then he gets to work.

By the next day, he has drafted a new letter to Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval, asking her to let Turner bring wolves back onto the ranch.

The compromise? The US Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed it won't release any wolves that are older than two months.

In his letter, Phillips asks Sandoval to allow eight wolves onto the ranch: an adult pair and three puppies currently in Washington that are scheduled for release in Mexico, and three other males—none of which would be released within New Mexico.

"I'm hopeful," he says. "This is a way forward. Ladder Ranch can come back online and advance Mexican wolf recovery in a way that's respectful to the needs and concerns of the citizens of New Mexico."

Since 1998, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners have been releasing wolves into Arizona and New Mexico, with the hope of bringing back a species that had been extirpated from the US by the 1950s. The program itself traces back to the 1980s, though it's never run particularly smoothly. There have been problems with inbreeding and kerfuffles with ranchers who oppose the program.

While scientists have tried to put down their heads and get to work—and environmental organizations have cheered for the predator's recovery—the political gap between the state and the feds has often been cavernous.

During the Bush administration, for example, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a new procedure requiring them to kill wolves that were repeatedly preying on livestock, it was the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish that spoke against killing some of those wolves.

Then, as recovery took a higher priority under Obama, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez pulled back the reins. In June 2011, the Game Commission voted to end the state's participation in the program. Last year, the commission refused to give the feds permission to release wolves here.

While the feds can move forward without the state's approval, the agency prefers to have it. That's why the agency says it has not released any wolves in New Mexico since June.

According to its most recent numbers, the wild population is at about 110 animals. That number has been growing since 2010, says Sherry Barrett, coordinator for the federal wolf program, but that's not the only concern.

"Our releases right now are not targeted toward growing the population, but toward improving the genetic health of the wild population," Barrett says. "Because right now, the genetic diversity of the captive population is greater than the wild population."

When Sandoval denied Turner's permit in May, she cited the federal government's inability to come up with a new recovery plan for the wolves. The Turner Endangered Species Fund appealed that decision, saying the private ranch was being singled out unfairly. (Captive wolves are still allowed at Sevilleta National Wildfire Refuge and Albuquerque's BioPark.) But publicly, and in interviews with SFR, commissioners say they are willing to work with Turner.

Speaking to SFR at the meeting, Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said a new request would allow the commission to better debate the program's merits.

"So then we can have an open discussion about the middle ground approach, a compromise," Ryan said. "We want wolves with a plan. We don't just want to be releasing wolves willy-nilly in New Mexico."