updated 1/13/2004 3:20:23 PM ET 2004-01-13T20:20:23

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service postponed a decision Tuesday on whether to drop federal protection for gray wolves, which were hunted nearly to extinction decades ago but have made a remarkable recovery since the 1990s.

The agency said the state of Wyoming has failed to submit an adequate plan for managing the animals if the federal government were to step aside.

Joan Jewett, chief of public affairs for the wildlife agency’s Pacific Region, told The Associated Press that concerns with Wyoming’s plan “will need to be corrected before we can move forward with delisting.”

Endangered Species Act protection
Jewett disclosed the agency’s intentions before an official announcement that had been scheduled for the afternoon.

Gray wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act. They were reintroduced in or around Yellowstone National Park beginning in 1995 after being nearly wiped out by hunting and trapping across the West.

There are about 760 wolves in the three states, where they currently are classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in some areas, and as an “experimental population” in and immediately around Yellowstone. Up until last April, some gray wolves in Montana were listed as endangered, a higher level of protection.

In proposing the lifting of federal protections, the government asked Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to draw up plans for monitoring and maintaining the wolf population. Montana and Idaho’s plans were found to be adequate.

Wyoming calls them predators
But Fish and Wildlife objected to Wyoming’s plan to classify wolves in part of the state as predators, which would mean the animals could be shot with few restrictions. The agency also said the plan does not provide for adequate monitoring, and objected to the boundaries outlined by the state.

“The state’s management plan do not provide sufficient management controls to assure the service that the wolf population will remain above recovery levels,” Fish and Wildlife Director Steve Williams said in a letter to Wyoming, obtained by the AP.

Under Wyoming’s plan, gray wolves in some areas would be considered trophy game and subject to regulated hunting, while in other areas they would be classified as predators. The wolves would be protected in the national parks.

If the agency had found all three state plans acceptable, it planned to propose removing all federal protections for the animals in the Northern Rockies and turning management over to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

All three states were officially hostile to wolf reintroduction from its start, with ranchers afraid the wolves would prey on their livestock and pets.

Ranchers want the states to retake control over the wolves from the federal government, arguing that would give them more of a say.

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