ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - U.S. government and state officials intend to work together to recover an endangered species of wolves that once roamed the American Southwest, with a new signed agreement.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish announced the agreement with Arizona and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday. It's aimed at getting Mexican gray wolves to the point where they can eventually be removed from the endangered species list.
As part of the effort, the federal agency plans to work with state wildlife managers to determine the timing, location and the circumstances for releasing wolves into the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.
"In this act of good faith, we look forward to strengthening our partnership with the Service," New Mexico Game and Fish Director Alexandra Sandoval said in a statement.
New Mexico has long had complaints about the way the wolf reintroduction program has been managed. The chief concern focused on the failure over decades by the federal government to revamp the recovery plan for the wolves.
In 2015, the state refused to give Fish and Wildlife a permit to release more of the predators. The federal agency decided to release them anyway, citing an urgent need to expand the wild population to prevent inbreeding. New Mexico went to court, and a federal judge temporarily blocked further releases while the dispute was pending.
The government appealed, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in early 2017 lifted the injunction, clearing the way for releases.
Fish and Wildlife, under a separate court order stemming from legal challenges brought by environmentalists, finally published a new recovery plan last year and the memorandum of agreement signed this week indicates a willingness to end the court battle.
Aside from the outdated recovery plan, much of the legal wrangling has centered how much influence states have when it comes to endangered species and federal actions.
Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has pushed for more wolf releases, said federal law trumps state law and that Fish and Wildlife has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to recover the animal.
"Having won the legal rulings issued thus far, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now giving up the game," Robinson said.
Regional Fish and Wildlife officials did not immediately comment on the latest agreement, but they acknowledged in February the challenges of re-establishing the species and that working with state partners would be key.
There are at least 114 wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. The number reflects on-the-ground data collected over the winter along with aerial surveys done in January and February.
Under the recently adopted recovery plan, management of the wolves in the U.S. would eventually revert to the state wildlife agencies but not until the population averages 320 wolves over an eight-year period. In each of the last three years, the population would have to exceed the average to ensure the species doesn't backslide.