Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

Mexican wolves will have more room to roam under regulations announced today by the Fish and Wildlife Service that aim to triple the size of the species’s experimental population.

The rules represent the first major update to the program since 1998. They set up a new framework, increasing the wolf’s boundaries tenfold and “clarifying” when landowners and state officials can kill problematic wolves.

Federal officials say the rules strike a balance, giving wolves more space while also addressing concerns over their effect on ungulates such as elk and livestock. In a call with reporters this afternoon, FWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle described the updated program as a “foundation by which we will construct any recovery plan” for the wolves.

“I think for the first time, we’re in a position to focus our efforts on the core population, build it up and then let the wolves tell us what they want to do,” Tuggle said.

But environmental groups accused FWS of accomplishing the opposite, undermining broader recovery goals by setting a too-low population goal and keeping the population out of the Grand Canyon and New Mexico.

“Allowing Mexican gray wolves to disperse over a broader area is a positive, but that positive is negated by an unfounded population cap and increased authorized killing — neither of which is based in the science that says what’s best for lobos,” Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement. “The rule is a classic ‘one step forward, one or two steps back’ and will ultimately hinder the recovery of these iconic and imperiled wolves.”

The rules set a population goal of 325 wolves. If they exceed that number, Tuggle said the agency may consider whether they are having a negative impact on the ungulate population. If they are, FWS would likely “remove those wolves to captivity.”

At last count, in 2013, the Mexican wolf population was 83. Thousands once roamed the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, before they were nearly wiped out in the early 1970s.

Environmental groups say FWS has dragged its feet in drafting a new recovery plan, leaving a 1983 plan in place. They have also urged the agency to first update the recovery plan, then issue the rules for the experimental population (Greenwire, Nov. 25, 2014).

FWS also announced today that the Mexican wolf will be protected under the Endangered Species Act as a subspecies, which paves the way for a new recovery plan. Tuggle said today it is now “within the sight of getting initiated.”