A federal appeals court in Denver on Tuesday lifted an order that blocked the federal release of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico without the permission of the state Department of Game and Fish.

The ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came in a case brought last year by the Department of Game and Fish against the U.S. Interior Department and its Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the wolf-recovery program.

The appeals court overturned a June decision by U.S. District Judge William Johnson in Albuquerque to issue a preliminary injunction against wolf releases by the Fish and Wildlife Service without approval of the Game and Fish Department.

The appeals court said the Department of Game and Fish had failed to show it would suffer irreparable harm if wolves were released before its case against the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service is decided. The case argues that state permission is needed for wolf releases.

The appeals court didn’t address the merits of the case brought by the Department of Game and Fish. Johnson had found the department would likely win the lawsuit. The Fish and Wildlife Service says it has authority under the Endangered Species Act to release wolves without state approval.

The Department of Game and Fish and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been entangled in a debate over Mexican wolf recovery since 2011, when the state ended its participation in the federal recovery program.

Wolf advocates applauded the appeals court ruling as a victory for the Endangered Species Act, the federal law providing for the wolf’s recovery. But it is unclear when, or if, the Fish and Wildlife Service will resume reintroduction of the wolf in New Mexico.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke voted against protections for the gray wolves and other endangered species as a Republican congressman for Montana. His nomination for interior secretary was opposed by 170 environmental groups, in part because of his record related to endangered species protections.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to request for comment on the appeals court ruling.

Lance Cherry, a spokesman for the Department of Game and Fish, said in an email that the department will “continue to do all we can to show how unpermitted experimental release of Mexican wolves by the federal government will be harmful to New Mexicans. Our priority will always be doing what’s best for New Mexicans, our wildlife and natural resources.”

At issue in the case is how the Endangered Species Act interacts with or impedes states’ rights.

The Department of Game and Fish argued the case with the support of 18 states, including Colorado, Arizona and Texas, as well as the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

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Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance intervened in support of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department.

Bryan Bird of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement, “Now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can again release Mexican gray wolves into the wild in New Mexico, we hope that their numbers will continue to climb and that their genetic diversity in the wild will improve.”

He said, “It will be up to the staff of the wolf recovery program to do what they said they would in the release plan.”

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service, despite the preliminary injunction against unpermitted wolf releases, published a draft plan calling for release of wolf packs and pups in New Mexico and Arizona this summer.

Bird said it was unlikely Interior Department senior leadership would intervene with species recovery management in the Southwest.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity agreed. “Right now, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to release wolves, and most compellingly, the wolves really need new animals to bolster their shaky genetics,” he said.

In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service sought two permits to release wolves in New Mexico, but the Department of Game and Fish denied the requests, arguing the federal management plan for the recovery failed to consider up-to-date science.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it didn’t need state permission under the Endangered Species Act, released two wolf cubs last spring, an action that led to the lawsuit by the Department of Game and Fish.

The appeals court, in lifting the preliminary injunction against wolf releases, said the Department of Game and Fish had “failed to establish that it will suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction.”

The court said Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval had failed to present sufficient evidence that releasing wolves would change “predator-prey dynamics, other attributes of the ecosystem, or factors influencing the accuracy of the Department’s management objectives … let alone indicate that any potential harm would be certain, imminent, and serious.”

At last count, there were 113 Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, up from 97 in 2015.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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