North America’s smallest and rarest wolves will finally have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act. Well, almost.

Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) nearly went extinct 40 years ago. After decades of hunting and persecution the last five wild members of the subspecies were rounded up in 1973 and placed in an emergency captive breeding program. There they remained until 1998, when the first of a series of highly controlled releases took place in Arizona, followed by later releases in New Mexico.

These wolves may have lived in the wild now for almost 17 years, but U.S. officials haven’t truly considered them to be wild. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has actually labeled the animals as a “nonessential experimental population” of the main gray wolf species, which meant they could be removed from the wild at any time. Indeed, several re-wilded wolves have been returned to captivity over the years after they threatened the animals on nearby cattle ranches. Others have been shot and killed.

But this week the FWS made an unexpected announcement: The “experimental” phase of the wolves’ release will come to a close, and they won’t be lumped in with the main gray wolf species. Instead, the animals will receive their own classification of “endangered,” which will afford them not just greater protections but ensure that the Mexican wolves living in the wild actually stay there.

There are a few caveats, though. The wolves will be allowed to expand their territory by four times its current size but they will not be permitted to go any farther north than Arizona’s Interstate 40. The animals will also be allowed to breed and grow their population (supplemented by additional releases of captive-bred animals) to as many as 325 wolves from the current 80, but that’s it. (Any excess if they exceed that 325 would be captured again or moved to Mexico.)

This is an unusual step to say the least, because the Endangered Species Act (ESA) usually sets minimum population goals for species’ recoveries, not maximum numbers. The Center for Biological Diversity, which has long advocated for these wolves, says this cap of 350 is “too low for recovery.” It also says the artificial Interstate 40 barrier presents the lobos from reaching a habitat size they truly need to recover.

Meanwhile, the new rules presented by FWS contain one more key difference from the standard ESA regulations: Property owners will still have the right to kill any wolf found biting, wounding or killing any domestic animals (livestock or pets) on federal or private land. Beyond that, the wolves could also be killed if they create “unacceptable impacts to ungulates”—deer and other game animals that are valuable to hunters. The law normally forbids killing protected species.

But even with these extra limitations, these new rules present major opportunities that have been denied to Mexican wolves for decades. I, for one, look forward to watching their numbers increase over the coming years.

Photo by Eric Kilby via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: