ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Conservation groups hailed a decision Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the status of the Mexican gray wolf to determine if it should be listed as an endangered species separate from other North American gray wolves.
The groups that sought a separate listing for the animal said the agency's decision breathes new life into a troubled effort to return Mexican wolves to the Southwest.
"It hasn't received the focused attention that it badly needs," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "With a separate listing, it will lead to a separate recovery plan for the Mexican wolf with recovery criteria, greater protections on the ground and eventually additional reintroductions to other areas of suitable habitat."
The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and The Rewilding Institute had filed petitions last year, seeking a separate listing. They argued that such a listing was biologically warranted and legally required.
A court settlement required the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a finding by the end of July. The decision was made public Tuesday in a notice that will be published in the Federal Register.
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was exterminated in the wild by the 1930s.
Reintroduction began in 1998 along the Arizona-New Mexico border, but the effort has been hampered by illegal shootings and complaints from ranchers who have lost cattle to wolves. Conservationists also have criticized the way the federal government has managed the program.
Biologists had predicted a self-sustaining wild population of 100 wolves by now, but the latest count at the end of 2009 found 42 between the two states.
Conservationists worry that the count will be lower at the close of 2010.
In its finding, the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that the wild Mexican wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona has not been able to sustain itself because of high mortality rates, blamed largely on shootings and encounters with vehicles, as well as removal by wildlife managers.
The agency said the conservationists' petitions present substantial information indicating that listing the Mexican wolf as a subspecies may be warranted so it will conduct a one-year status review -- an in-depth look to decide if the wolf should be listed separately.
The Mexican wolf is facing extinction for a second time, said Nicole Rosmarino, the wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. She pointed to three wolves that were found dead over the past month, including two that were shot.
"This animal desperately needs all the help it can get from the Fish and Wildlife Service," she said.
Rosmarino and Robinson both complained that the agency has been talking for years about updating a decades-old recovery plan to include criteria for recovery and delisting, but nothing has come of it.
With the review, Rosmarino said a new recovery plan will be one step closer and the agency will be forced to look carefully at how the design of the reintroduction program and any decisions regarding critical habitat might be altered to ensure wolf recovery.
The agency said the Mexican wolf will remain protected as an endangered species under the broader gray wolf listing while the review takes place and that the status of an experimental, nonessential population of Mexican wolves will not change, regardless of the review's outcome.
The agency is giving the public until Oct. 4 to submit information regarding the Mexican wolf.