updated 7/24/2006 10:36:31 PM ET 2006-07-25T02:36:31

The U.S. government on Monday denied a request from Wyoming to remove gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

Wyoming officials, concerned that wolves have been killing cattle and domestic sheep and thinning elk herds, had proposed allowing trophy hunting of the animals in certain areas and classifying them as predators that could be shot on sight elsewhere.

The state proposed allowing the wolves to live unmolested in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

In rejecting the state’s petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that it couldn’t remove federal protections for wolves in Wyoming until the state sets firm limits on how many could be killed.

The agency also said the state must commit to maintaining a minimum population of the animals. Wyoming is home to an estimated 252 wolves.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Monday that the decision will make it easier for Wyoming to get a judge to decide whether its plan is scientifically adequate.

Just hours before Monday’s announcement, Freudenthal and state Attorney General Pat Crank released a letter warning the federal agency that the state intended to sue to compel action.

Ed Bangs, coordinator of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf recovery effort in Helena, Mont., said Wyoming game managers must be authorized to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves overall in the state in midwinter before the federal agency can agree to remove federal protections.

“Our conclusion is that Wyoming law, and its plan, really don’t provide enough assurance for us to move forward with delisting at this time,” Bangs said.

Crank said Monday the state is satisfied that providing wolves a haven in the national parks and decreasing protections outside the parks would conserve the population.

Elk calf numbers have dropped from as high as 30 per 100 of the elk population during the winter to below 10 per 100 in areas where there are many wolves, he said.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a coalition representing agriculture interests, sportsmen and others, said he lost 51 sheep last year and has lost 12 so far this year.

“I think what we’re seeing is the wolves are dispersing more and more across the state,” Magagna said.

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