updated 9/29/2008 9:14:20 PM ET 2008-09-30T01:14:20

A federal court Monday overturned the Bush administration's decision to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the endangered species list.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington sided with environmental groups that accused the government of misreading the law last year when it lifted protections for about 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It was the second setback in a week for the administration's campaign to return management authority to state officials in the two regions where the wolf has rebounded after being driven to the brink of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Sept. 23 asked a judge in Montana to return gray wolves in the Northern Rockies to the endangered list, reversing a proposal to drop them earlier this year. That followed the judge's order in July barring plans for public wolf hunts in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

The biggest practical effect of Friedman's ruling is to nullify newly established state policies allowing people in the Great Lakes area to kill wolves attacking livestock or pets. It also bars the states from permitting hunting or trapping of wolves, although none had done so.

The wolf occupies only about 5 percent of its historical range, which once took in most of the continental United States.

But the animal has recovered steadily in the western Great Lakes region since the late 1970s, migrating from Minnesota into Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Surveys this year turned up 2,921 wolves in Minnesota, at least 537 in Wisconsin and 520 in Michigan.

Wisconsin will revoke permits it had issued to seven farmers allowing them to shoot wolves attacking livestock, natural resources spokeswoman Laurel Steffes said.

Until the lawsuit is resolved, state officials said they probably would seek federal permits allowing non-lethal methods to deal with wolves that continually harass livestock.

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