He added that his agency for the next five years will monitor how the wolves are faring.
In the Southwest, the road to recovery was even more daunting. In 1998, federal authorities released 11 Mexican gray wolves into the Arizona wilderness, and 14 years later there are only 58.
Chris Bagnoli, interagency field team leader for the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project, ticked off a long list of obstacles to the Mexican wolf's recovery: ineffective management, illegal wolf kills, effects on livestock and game, the population's genetic viability and health, and human safety. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department, which declined to comment, stopped working with federal officials to help the Mexican wolf in June 2011.
While Defenders of Wildlife has financed several programs aimed at helping cattle ranchers coexist with wolves — hiring range riders, putting up fences and compensating for lost cattle — many ranchers are losing patience with the reintroduction program.
Patrick Bray, executive director of the Arizona Cattle Grower's Association, said the presence of wolves increases costs even when they don't kill livestock, by making cattle nervous and forcing ranchers to move their herds frequently.
"We're not going to be comfortable with an expanded range moving forward, with an expanded program, until we figure out how to make the existing program work," Bray said.
By the end of the month, Fish and Wildlife will have to determine if the Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf, rather than a "distinct population segment." Colorado and Utah are fighting the subspecies designation on the grounds that it could lead to Mexican wolves expanding their range into their states. And wolves that wander out of their established areas — into the Pacific Northwest, for example — are still protected as endangered under federal law.