PHOENIX -- Saying the state's sovereignty is at issue, the Arizona Game and Fish Department sued the federal government Monday for failing to come up with a plan that would result in Mexican wolves being taken off the endangered species list.

The lawsuit filed in federal court is built around what Assistant Attorney General James Odenkirk said is the failure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to develop a legally required "recovery plan" for the wolf. That, Odenkirk said, violates federal law.

But the issue goes far deeper than a technical violation.

Odenkirk said having the wolf listed as endangered and having a project to reintroduce the wolf to portions of Arizona have imposed "significant additional cost" to Game and Fish to manage and conserve wildlife.

"These costs will continue until the Mexican wolf is recovered and the Fish and Wildlife Service delists the species," he wrote.

But the issue, Odenkirk said, goes deeper than that.

"Federal control of the Mexican wolf also interferes with Arizona's sovereign authority to manage and conserve the Mexican wolf pursuant to Arizona law," he told the judge.

That goes to the heart of the case.

Once the wolf is no longer listed as "endangered," the federal government no longer has any role to play in preserving the species. And that would open the door to Game and Fish -- presumably under direction from the Legislature -- deciding how best to manage the species.

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Heidi McIntosh, an attorney with Earthjustice, which has its own lawsuits against Fish and Wildlife Service over lack of a realistic recovery plan, said putting the state in control of wolf populations has implications all its own.

"Some would argue that the state could start treating wolves the same way they treat coyotes," she said. "That's why federal protection is so important."

McIntosh said this is not idle speculation. She said her organization had to file a separate lawsuit earlier this year after Game and Fish "badgered" the federal agency into accepting terms that actually would undermine a true recovery program.

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"I don't think they have changed their stripes," she said.

That's also the assessment of Andrea Santarsiere of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Arizona was a player in thwarting all efforts to complete a recovery plan," she said, even as the state now claims it wants one. "Kind of ironic, isn't it?"

But Mike Rabe, head of the non-game and endangered wildlife program at Game and Fish, said there is no such agenda. He said his agency just wants Fish and Wildlife to come up with some sort of realistic goal for what it would take to have a sustainable wolf population.

Rabe said he truthfully doubts the wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico will ever be large enough to no longer be listed as endangered. But he said even if it reaches that point there is no reason to believe it will lead to the state allowing the wholesale killing of the animals.

"We're interested in conservation of wolves, too," he said. "And our goal is not to shoot them and set up a hunt for wolves."

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Chris Etling is the managing editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. He's worked for the Daily Sun since November 2009 and has lived in Flagstaff for 16 years.

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