TUCSON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must complete a recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf by Nov. 30, 2017, under a deal reached this week.
The stipulated settlement agreement filed in Tucson federal court late Tuesday, if approved, will settle two lawsuits over the fate of the once nearly extinct gray wolf subspecies (Canis lupus baileyi).
However, the success of the deal is uncertain, as several intervenors in the lawsuits, among them the Colorado Farm Bureau, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, Utah Farm Bureau, and the Coalition for Arizona and New Mexico Communities for Stable Economic Growth, declined to join the agreement and have promised to oppose it.
There are currently about 97 wild Mexican gray wolves living in designated recovery areas in northern Arizona and New Mexico, according to Fish and Wildlife's 2015 year-end population survey. That's down from 110 wolves counted at the end of 2014. The survey found 21 packs, with some 47 wolves in New Mexico and 50 in Arizona, including 23 wild-born pups.
Once a top predator in the Southwest, the subspecies was almost wiped out by the 1970s. Reintroduction of the current experimental population began in the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico in 1998. The agency listed the gray wolf (Canis lupus) as endangered in 1978, but didn't highlight the Mexican subspecies as such until 2015. Fish and Wildlife issued a preliminary recovery plan in 1982, but has since failed to complete a "scientifically grounded, legally valid recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf subspecies," according to a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and other wolf advocacy groups.
"After four decades of delay, a scientific roadmap for recovery of the Mexican gray wolf will finally be reality," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in statement "The recovery plan should trigger new releases of captive-bred wolves into the wild and establish new Mexican wolf populations in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountain ecosystems."
This week's agreement comes after at least six months of talks among the environmental groups, the states of Arizona and Utah, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. It will settle the 2014 action as well as a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Arizona in which the state, like the environmental groups, claimed that Fish and Wildlife had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to develop a proper recovery plan for the subspecies.
The deal now goes before U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps for approval.
Along with the 2017 deadline for developing a recovery plan, it requires Fish and Wildlife to submit status reports to the court every six months.
"Recovery of the Mexican wolf remains our goal," Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. "We aim to support natural wild wolf population growth and improve population genetics, eventually leading to species recovery and state management of the species."
Objecting to the deadline, Colorado and the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game, both of which intervened in Arizona's 2015 action, refused to join the settlement but agreed to dismiss their claims if it's approved. The Arizona case has been voluntarily stayed pending approval of the deal.
The farm and business groups that intervened in the 2014 Defenders of Wildlife lawsuit also declined the join the agreement and have vowed to fight it in court.
"They are not going to meet those deadlines and comply with the law," Attorney Dori Richards told Courthouse News on Thursday. "They might come up with a recovery plan, but that plan isn't going to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and it will not be a plan that has any true viability to lead to recovery."
Richards and co-counsel A. Blair Dunn represent the intervenors for Western Agriculture, Resource and Business Law Advocates in Albuquerque.
One of their clients' biggest concerns is that Mexico, which controls 90 percent of the subspecies' historic range, is not yet involved in the process.
"If you don't have some sort of agreement with Mexico to recover the species, and you write a recovery plan, how are you going to come up with a viable recovery plan if you don't have access to the majority of the historic range?" Dunn said.
"The only way that you can do that is to release the number of wolves needed for recovery into 10 percent of the range," he said. "Which means you are increasing the amount of human and livestock interactions with wolves, and you are really putting the whole project on a path to destruction."
The attorneys said that a real recovery of the species on 10 percent of its historic range would result in about 1,000 wolves in the Southwest, a region that may not have enough wild prey, such as elk, to sustain such a recovery.
Dunn added that, "assuming you can actually recover the species on 10 percent of the range, what are we going to be losing in the mean time?"
"It places a huge burden on the public, and puts human life and safety into the mix because you are going to have a lot more human-wolf interactions," he said. "And it places a heck of burden on the livestock industry."
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