A federal judge has ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to revisit its management strategies for endangered Mexican gray wolves and reassess its application of the science for recovering the species. The experimental population rule the service has been using, the judge's decision states, allows for short-term survival but fails to promote long-term recovery of the species.

"This case is unique in that the same scientists that are cited by the agency publicly communicated their concern that the agency misapplied and misinterpreted findings in such a manner that the recovery of the species is compromised," US District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps wrote in the ruling filed late Monday. "To ignore this dire warning was an egregious oversight by the agency."

The three practices specifically challenged by a court case, whose plaintiffs include Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity, were those that capped the total population of Mexican wolves, barred the animals from certain habitat and loosened requirements for killing wolves. These practices were codified in a 2015 federal management rule and are mirrored in the recovery plan for Mexican wolves that was finalized in November, which has also been challenged in a separate court case.

"There will be a ripple effect, but what that effect is is unclear," says Christopher Smith, a southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

The 2015 management rule limited the reintroduced population to 325 wolves. A scientific panel convened years before suggested a recovered, self-sustaining population would be twice that size. The rule also set I-40 as the northern boundary for Mexican wolf habitat and allowed for killing wolves without concern for genetically important individuals in response to conflicts with ranchers. The service is working with a population of wolves that stem from seven animals, and face a genetic bottleneck that limits the ability to successfully reproduce.

"This decision makes clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service has to do more to protect and recover endangered Mexican wolves," Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. "With only 114 Mexican wolves left in the wild, the government cannot take a slow and incremental approach to recovery. We need more wolves in more places, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and southern Rockies in New Mexico."

Management of Mexican wolves has long worked to balance the interests of ranchers grazing cattle in the area where the endangered species is trying to regain footing. Fish and Wildlife Service staff members discussing the recovery plan have acknowledged that reality, and that some of their decisions, like setting I-40 as the northern boundary for Mexican wolf habitat, has less to do with ecology than it does with social tolerance.

The decision comes just days after the 20-year anniversary of the return of Mexican wolves to the wild and the launch of a formal recovery effort. The Fish and Wildlife Service was not immediately available for comment on the ruling. The judge gave government officials 30 days to revise the rule.