ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After decades of legal challenges and political battles that have pitted states against the federal government, U.S. wildlife managers on Wednesday finally formulated a plan to guide the recovery of a wolf that once roamed parts of the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
The plan sets a goal of having an average of 320 Mexican gray wolves in the wild over an eight-year period before the predator can shed its status as an endangered species. In each of the last three years, the population would have to exceed the average to ensure the species doesn't backslide.
Officials estimate recovery could take another two decades and nearly $180 million, a cost borne largely by breeding facilities that support threatened and endangered species work.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered tens of thousands of public comments — from state lawmakers and business groups to independent scientists and environmentalists — as it worked to meet a court-ordered deadline to craft the recovery plan. It was a long time coming as the original guidance for restoring the wolf was adopted in 1982.
"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 in an interview.
Barrett said state wildlife officials and other peers reviewed the scientific data and the models used to calculate the best way forward for the agency as it works to bolster genetic diversity and continue building the wild population.
There are now more of the wolves roaming the Southwest than at any time since the federal government began trying to reintroduce the animals in 1998. The most recent annual survey shows at least 113 wolves spread between southwestern New Mexico and southeast Arizona.
There are about 31 wolves in the wild in Mexico, officials said.
Under the recovery plan, those numbers would be expected to grow to 145 in the U.S. and 100 in Mexico over the next five years.
Barrett said targeted releases of captive-bred wolves and translocations are necessary to make the program work. Improvements in the survival rate — currently 28 percent — will be a factor that affects how many releases are needed, she said.
In an effort to avoid future skirmishes with states, the plan calls for cooperation with wildlife officials in New Mexico and Arizona when it comes to the timing, location and circumstances of the releases. However, federal officials will make the final decisions.
Environmentalists are voicing concerns, suggesting there needs to be more than 700 wolves in the wild if the population is to withstand illegal shootings, genetic issues and other challenges.
"The final recovery plan fails to recover the Mexican gray wolf. It is political in nature, not science-based," said Bryan Bird with Defenders of Wildlife, arguing that suitable habitat in the Grand Canyon and Southern Rockies is being ignored.
Environmentalists have pressed for years for more captive wolves to be released, but ranchers and elected leaders in rural communities have pushed back because the predators sometimes attack domestic livestock and wild game.
Last year, the U.S. Interior Department's internal watchdog said the Fish and Wildlife Service had not fulfilled its obligation to remove Mexican gray wolves that preyed on pets and cattle.
Barrett said with the new plan and other rules that give the agency flexibility in managing problem wolves, there is optimism among officials that progress can be made.
"I know that with most things having to do with wolves, there's going to be a lot of strong opinions on both sides," she said. "But to us, it is a big step forward for us to have something in place to start working toward and working with the public to achieve."
NEW YORK — "Today" show host Matt Lauer was fired for what NBC on Wednesday called "inappropriate sexual behavior" with a colleague and was promptly confronted with a published report accusing him of crude and habitual misconduct with other women around the office.
In another development, former "Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor was cut loose by Minnesota Public Radio over an allegation of "inappropriate behavior." MPR gave no details, but the 75-year-old Keillor said he inadvertently put his hand on a woman's bare back in an attempt to console her.
With his easygoing charm, Lauer has long been a lucrative and highly visible part of NBC News and one of the highest-paid figures in the industry, and his downfall shook the network and stunned many of the roughly 4 million viewers who start their day with him.
He is easily one of the biggest names brought down in recent weeks by the wave of sexual misconduct allegations that have swept through Hollywood, the media and politics.
Network news chief Andrew Lack said in a memo to the staff that NBC received a complaint about Lauer's behavior on Monday and determined he violated company standards. NBC said the misconduct started when Lauer and a network employee were at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and continued beyond that assignment.
Lack said it was the first complaint lodged against Lauer in his 20 years at NBC, but "we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident."
NBC News received two new complaints against Lauer on Wednesday, "NBC Nightly News" reported. The network didn't respond to a request for comment.
Earlier Wednesday, it was left to Lauer's shaken "Today" colleagues, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, to break the news to viewers at the top of the morning's show.
Word of Lauer's abrupt exit came on the day of NBC's "Christmas in Rockefeller Center" special featuring the annual Manhattan tree-lighting ceremony. Lauer was to have co-hosted the Wednesday night program with Guthrie, Kotb and Al Roker.
Hours after the firing, the trade publication Variety posted what it said was a two-month investigation that included dozens of interviews with current and former staffers who asked to remain anonymous.
Among other things, Variety reported allegations that Lauer once gave a colleague a sex toy with an explicit note about how he wanted to use it on her; that he exposed himself to another female co-worker; that he would question female producers about their sex lives; and that he would talk about which co-hosts he would like to sleep with.
Messages to Lauer and his agent were not immediately returned, and NBC would not say whether he denied or admitted to any wrongdoing. He is married with three children.
Lauer becomes the second morning host in a week to lose his job over sexual misconduct allegations. CBS fired Charlie Rose after several women who worked for him complained about his behavior.
Lauer, 59, has essentially been the king of television morning news since first being paired with Katie Couric on "Today" in 1997.
For many years, "Today" was the unquestioned ratings leader, until it was eclipsed by ABC's "Good Morning America" following the ugly 2012 firing of Lauer's co-host Ann Curry. The show had stabilized in recent years with Lauer's pairing with Guthrie.
Lauer's "Where in the world is Matt Lauer?" segments were popular for years, and he regularly played a lead role at the Olympics and other major news events.
He joins a lengthening list of media figures felled by sexual misconduct accusations this year. Besides Rose, they include Lauer's NBC News colleague Mark Halperin, Fox News prime-time host Bill O'Reilly and National Public Radio newsroom chief Michael Oreskes. The New York Times suspended White House correspondent Glenn Thrush last week.
As for Keillor, Minnesota Public Radio said it will end distribution of the radio program "The Writer's Almanac," Keillor's daily reading of a poem and telling of literary events, and end rebroadcasts of old "Prairie Home Companion" episodes.
"I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it," Keillor said in an email to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called."
The flood of allegations was set off in large part by the downfall of Hollywood studio boss Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing numerous women.
Ari Wilkenfeld, the attorney for Lauer's accuser, praised NBC for acting "quickly and responsibly" in response to the morning host's "egregious acts of sexual harassment and misconduct." The lawyer did not identify his client.
Lack, in his memo, said, "We are deeply saddened by this turn of events. But we will face it together as a news organization — and do it in as transparent a manner as we can."
An immediate challenge is filling a giant hole on a show that has long been the most lucrative for NBC News. One potential replacement, Willie Geist, on Wednesday called Lauer someone "I have always looked up to in the business, and he taught me a lot."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly released recovery plan for endangered Mexican gray wolves is one that sportsmen and state wildlife managers “can live with,” said Tom Mackin, the Flagstaff-area representative with the Arizona Wildlife Federation, which supports hunters, anglers and wildlife-related recreation.
The plan’s goal to establish a sustainable population of 320 animals in Arizona and New Mexico is one “we think would be tolerated from a social standpoint,” Mackin said.
Reactions to the plan were much different from organizations across the Southwest that are advocates of wolf recovery. A group of 10 issued swift criticisms of the recovery document.
Among them is Emily Renn, who heads the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. The nonprofit has worked for more than a decade to return wolves to a wider range in Arizona. The recovery plan’s biggest downfall is its limitation on wolf recovery habitat to south of Interstate-40, Renn said.
“Our organization was created because all the science said this was excellent wolf habitat,” Renn said, referring to areas north of the highway. “For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to completely ignore that in the future recovery of this species is really arbitrary because there is so much science that supports it.”
A nine-member science advisory group in 2012 produced a draft recovery plan for Mexican wolves that recommended recovery habitat extend into northern New Mexico, southern Colorado and the Grand Canyon region, but it was never finalized.
The recovery plan released Wednesday estimates 70 wolves will need to be released from captivity to achieve genetic diversity targets. To reach that number, federal managers will focus “a lot” on the tactic of cross fostering as opposed to the release of adult wolves into the wild, Sherry Barrett, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, said during a media call Wednesday.
Cross fostering involves taking young wolf pups born in captivity and placing them with wild wolf litters born around the same time so they are raised in the wild. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been vocal about its support for cross fostering and in 2015 voted to stop the release of captive-raised adult wolves.
But to achieve recovery of the species, it’s not enough to depend on only cross-fostered pups, Renn said.
“There are still genetically valuable adults wolves in the captive population,” Renn said. “It’s a matter of getting the most valuable wolves into the wild population and not eliminating any release option to be able to do that."
But adult wolves released from captivity tend to cause more problems, which makes cross-fostering a better alternative, Mackin said.
Expanding wolf habitat north of Interstate-40 also poses potential complications with tribal boundaries in northern Arizona and northern New Mexico, Mackin said in support of the federal plan's current habitat boundary.
He was less supportive of the recovery plan’s $180 million price tag.
“I guess what they're presenting is the Cadillac plan or perhaps the Mercedes plan, but perhaps we need the Chevrolet or Subaru plan to see what we can do to successfully bring these animals up to a delisting level but not spend ($180 million),” Mackin said.
An increased entrance fee to the Grand Canyon could harm tourism and economic development in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, the mayor and city council fear.
The mayor and council drafted public comments to submit to the National Park Service as well as a resolution opposing the fee increase that will be finalized at the council's Dec. 5 meeting.
The action came in response to business owners asking the council for support in opposing the increase, with many businesses and tour operators claiming the increase will hurt their businesses.
In October, the National Park Service proposed increasing the entrance fees at 17 national parks, including the Grand Canyon. The fee to enter the park is $30 and is proposed to be raised to $70.
“While the increase to $70 may not affect those that spend thousands of dollars to stay within the park, this fee increase could negatively impact our local residents and their families,” the council said in the statement. “The proposed fee increase to $70 would price out many of our residents from enjoying the Canyon.”
The National Park Service has also proposed increasing the fees for ground-based tour operators in the parks. Beginning in 2019, commercial tour fees will have three components: an application fee, a management fee and an entrance fee.
In January of that year, the Park Service will require a $300 application fee annually for tour operators and a $5-per-client management fee based on the amount of clients that used the tour operator throughout the year.
Then in May 2019, commercial tour entrance fees will be subject to charges based on the size of the vehicle used to transport customers, ranging from a sedan to a motor coach carrying more than 57 people. Parks that only charge a fee per person, instead of per vehicle, will continue to charge a per-person rate.
The proposal also includes an increased entrance fee for peak season, which for the Grand Canyon will be May through October. During the peak season, prices for tour operators will increase between $60 and $600 per vehicle above the off-peak season price, depending on vehicle size.
The draft statement for the council’s comments points out that many Flagstaff businesses and employees depend on tourism.
“This fee hike could harm tourism and economic development in the City of Flagstaff and surrounding areas,” the statement reads. “The Grand Canyon is the second most visited park in the country with nearly six million visitors each year. Many Canyon visitors come to our city, stay in our hotels, shop at our local businesses and make the short drive from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park. Tourism is the lifeblood of our economy.”
Many residents of Flagstaff would also not be able to afford to visit the Grand Canyon with the fee increase, the council says in the statement.
“We as a Council believe that the national parks and monuments are assets held in the public trust,” the draft version of the comments reads in part. “Therefore, it is the role of the federal government to invest in the maintenance of parks using existing funds.”
The comments were created for the council meeting Nov. 21 in order to meet the original submission deadline of Nov. 23. However, the National Park Service extended the comment period to Dec. 22, allowing the council to deliberate the comments more and receive input from city commissions and boards.
The council will be discussing the finalized resolution and public comments at its meeting on Tuesday.