Image: Gray wolf
US Fish & Wildlife via AP file
After nearly being wiped out, the population of wild gray wolves in the continental United State is now more than 5,500. The wolves had been protected for 35 years.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/6/2009 2:18:59 PM ET 2009-03-06T19:18:59

The Obama administration on Friday upheld a Bush-era decision to remove gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes region from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said a review of the January decision found that scientists do support the conclusion then that gray wolf populations in those areas were healthy.

"The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act," Salazar said in a statement. "When it was listed as endangered in 1974, the wolf had almost disappeared from the continental United States. Today, we have more than 5,500 wolves, including more than 1,600 in the Rockies."

Some environmental groups protested the ruling, and vowed to sue.

"Today is a truly disappointing day," Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said in a statement. "Defenders of Wildlife will now move to sue Secretary Salazar as quickly as possible."

"All the reasons why this plan was a bad idea when the Bush administration proposed it still stand today," Schlickeisen said. "If this rule is allowed to stand, nearly two-thirds of the wolves in the Northern Rockies could be killed."

'Inadequacy' in Wyoming
Salazar praised Montana and Idaho in particular for creating management plans and controls to sustain wolf populations after the federal protections are lifted.

The Bush administration had also decided not to delist gray wolves in Wyoming, a conclusion that Salazar agreed with.

"We can make the Endangered Species Act work" to restore wildlife populations when states cooperate, Salazar told reporters, adding "that has not been the case" with Wyoming.

He said it would have been unfair to Montana and Idaho to keep the protections on because of Wyoming's lack of an adequate state plan. "We should not hold those two states hostage to the inadequacy we have seen in Wyoming," he said.

Previous attempts by the federal government to remove wolves from the endangered list and return management authority to the states have been overruled by courts.

In the northern Rockies, the Fish and Wildlife Service last year tried to address the courts' concerns by excluding Wyoming, where officials had sought a "predator zone" covering almost 90 percent of the state where the animals could be shot on sight.

Federal officials said Wyoming law would have to change before wolves there could be taken off the list.

'I'm satisfied,' biologist says
David Mech, a leading wolf expert and senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, supported the Bush administration's assertion that the wolf population had rebounded.

"I'm satisfied, and most wolf biologists I know are satisfied, that wolf populations in both regions have been biologically recovered for the last five years," Mech said of the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes.

But some environmental and animal rights groups last year filed lawsuits when, in February 2008, the Bush administration proposed delisting the 1,500 wolves in the Northern Rockies.

A federal judge nullified the move in July, saying state management plans could not guarantee their recovery was sustainable. The Interior Department said Friday that while Wyoming's plan was not adequate, those of Idaho and Montana were.

Idaho and Montana have plans to allow for the hunting of wolves found to be harassing livestock. There are no immediate plans for hunts in the western Great Lakes, which has nearly 4,000 wolves.

Idaho Gov. C.L. Butch Otter on Friday repeated his desire to get the first available wolf hunting tag in the state so he can try to shoot one of the animals.

“The fish and game population is really counting on a robust population of trophy animals to maintain that part of our economy,” he said.

In another court case, a federal judge last September sided with animal-rights groups that accused the federal government of misapplying the law in when it lifted protections for about 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2007.

The Interior Department said Friday that it's final delisting order was written to "comply with the court's concerns."

Gray wolves previously were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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