The Mexican gray wolf is one of the rarest wolves in the world. It's also an endangered species, and now U.S. government officials and environmental groups are trying to determine the best way to increase the wolf's numbers.
These gorgeous creatures used to thrive throughout the southeastern United States, but they were nearly wiped out in the 1970s due to hunting and trapping.
In November 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USWFS) released its Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, with the goal to strengthen two healthy populations and average 320 wolves in New Mexico and Arizona over an eight-year period. Over the last three years of the period, the population would have to exceed that average to ensure it doesn't backslide. Once that goal is met, the wolf would be considered for de-classification as an endangered species.
It's a start, but is it enough?
The plan is a start, but two environmental coalitions don't believe the USWFS is doing enough to protect the wolf. The coalitions filed separate lawsuits against the agency in January 2018.
"Mexican wolves urgently need more room to roam, protection from killing and more releases of wolves into the wild to improve genetic diversity, but the Mexican wolf recovery plan provides none of these things," Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth told ABC News. "The wolves will face an ongoing threat to their survival unless major changes are made."
The lawsuits also state that 320 wolves isn't a sufficient number to ensure the wolves won't become endangered again.
Currently, there are 113 Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. Another 30 to 35 wolves are accounted for in Mexico. Conservationists are using, among other methods, artificial insemination to boost the population and to genetically diversify it, a key to developing healthier and more viable pups.
Recovery is a slow process
The USWFS recovery plan projects that those numbers would grow to 145 in the U.S. and 100 in Mexico over the next five years.
"This plan really provides us a roadmap for where we need to go to get this species recovered and delisted and get its management turned back over to the states and tribes," Sherry Barrett, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, told The Associated Press.
The USWFS weighed comments about the wolf species' recovery from lawmakers, environmentalists, scientists and business owners to create the plan. Barrett told the AP that the final plan's scientific models were reviewed by wildlife officials and "other peers" in an effort to protect the wolves' genetic diversity.
Although the USWFS said it worked with environmentalists in developing the plan, one group in Arizona doesn't think the agency is doing enough — calling the plan "deeply flawed" and criticizing it for doing too little to protect the wolves.
"This isn't a recovery plan, it's a blueprint for disaster for Mexican gray wolves," said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. "By limiting their habitat and stripping protections too soon, this plan ignores the science and ensures Mexican wolves never reach sufficient numbers to be secure."
Similar to the coalition groups in the lawsuits, the center believes more than 320 wolves need to be born in the wild to ensure the group's survival. In 2011, the center presented a plan to the USFWS that called for "three interconnected populations with a total of 750 animals" as a more realistic number for survival than the 320 in the released plan.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service published over 250 pages of supporting 'scientific' justification, used a sophisticated model to predict extinction probabilities, then tossed the science aside and asked the states how many wolves they would tolerate with no scientific justification whatsoever," David Parsons, former Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the USFWS, said in the center's statement.
"Using the states' arbitrary upper limit as a population cap in the population viability model and forcing additional recovery needs to Mexico, the plan will guarantee that from now to eternity no more than a running average of 325 Mexican wolves will ever be allowed to exist in the entire U.S. Southwest. This plan is a disgraceful sham."
The plan calls for targeted releases for captive-bred wolves. Improvements in the wolves' survival rates will be a factor in just how many releases are needed. While the USWFS has the final say in the releases, wildlife officials in New Mexico and Arizona will have influence regarding the timing and locations.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in November 2017.