ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — After repeated failures over decades, U.S. wildlife officials have finally drafted a recovery plan for endangered wolves that once roamed parts of the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to complete the plan for the Mexican gray wolf by the end of November.
The draft document released Thursday calls for focusing recovery of the wolves in core areas of the predators' historic range. That means south of Interstate 40 in the two states and in Mexico. The document also addresses threats, such as genetic diversity.
"At the time of recovery, the service expects Mexican wolf populations to be stable or increasing in abundance, well-distributed geographically within their historical range, and genetically diverse," the agency said in a statement.
The recovery plan is a long time coming as the original guidance for how to restore wolves to the Southwest was adopted in 1982.
The lack of a plan has spurred numerous legal challenges by environmentalists as well as skirmishes over states' rights under the Endangered Species Act.
Acknowledging the discord, regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials say the proposed recovery plan calls for more agreements between states and the federal government regarding how many wolves are released into the wild, where they are released and over what time period.
Fish and Wildlife has suggested that a population of at least 320 Mexican gray wolves would have to survive in the wild over a period of several years before the species can be considered recovered. That's nearly three times the number of wolves currently in New Mexico and Arizona.
Environmentalists have pushed for years for more captive wolves to be released, but ranchers and elected leaders in rural communities have pushed back because the predators sometimes attack domestic livestock and wild game.
Last year, the Interior Department's internal watchdog said Fish and Wildlife had not fulfilled its obligation to remove Mexican gray wolves that preyed on pets and cattle.
The state of New Mexico has multiple complaints about the way the program has been managed, and in 2015 it refused to issue a permit to Fish and Wildlife to release more of the predators in the state.
In a case that went before a federal appeals court, New Mexico and 18 other states argued that the Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to cooperate with them on how species are reintroduced within their borders. Federal attorneys contended that the law allows the agency to go around a state, if necessary, to save a species.
The court lifted an injunction that prohibited releases in New Mexico, but the overall merits of the case are still pending in district court.
There are now more of the wolves roaming the Southwest than at any time since the federal government began trying to reintroduce the animals nearly two decades ago. The most recent annual survey shows at least 113 wolves spread between southwestern New Mexico and southeast Arizona.
Environmentalists said Thursday the criteria for delisting the species sets the bar too low and goes against previous recommendations that called for establishing populations in the Grand Canyon area and as far north as Colorado.
Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity blamed heavy-handed management by federal wildlife managers as one of the reasons wolf numbers have remained low.
"The states and federal government will eventually figure out they're going to need to kill fewer wolves and introduce more genetically valuable wolves if the population is going to grow," he said.
Bryan Bird with the group Defenders of Wildlife suggested politics, more than science, influenced the plan.
"It's a backroom deal with the states that resist wolf recovery and fail to understand the transformational benefits to the entire landscape when Mexican gray wolves thrive," Bird said.
Federal officials have scheduled four meetings in New Mexico and Arizona to gather public comments on the proposal.