updated 10/20/2005 11:23:59 AM ET 2005-10-20T15:23:59

The governors of Idaho and Montana are touting a new proposal to drop gray wolves from the endangered species list, suggesting the federal government change the way it removes protection for animals whose populations have recovered.

The proposal by Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer would mark a departure from the way endangered species have been handled since 1973 by stripping them of protection by state rather than by geographic areas where they live.

The idea, outlined in an Oct. 7 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, would allow protections to be eased on wolves in Idaho and Montana while Wyoming resolves a dispute with regulators over its plan to manage the wolves once they taken off the list.

All three states are seeking greater control of the predators to limit livestock and wildlife losses. But removing wolves from the endangered species list in the northern Rocky Mountains has been held up by the government’s rejection of Wyoming’s wolf-management plan.

Under current policy, all three states must have plans deemed acceptable by federal officials before wolves can be removed from the list and managed the same as other wildlife.

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington were reviewing the governors’ letter and declined to comment on the proposal.

Since their reintroduction a decade ago, gray wolves have flourished in the northern Rockies, with more than 900 now estimated to be living in the three states.

“Biologically the species have recovered. It’s now time to recover them bureaucratically,” said Jeff Allen, policy adviser for the Idaho Office of Species Conservation in Boise.

Environmentalists said they are skeptical of the idea, saying the governors’ proposal is based on political boundaries, not biological ones.

“Under the original population goals, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are considered one population, not separate entities,” said Suzanne Stone, a spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife in Boise.

Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, 17 species have been removed from the list after their populations recovered, according to the agency’s Web site.

But none have been removed by state. Instead, federal protections were eased after the animals met population requirements in broad geographic areas where the species were originally threatened.

“Once you’ve listed a species within an area, you can’t simply divide that area at will” to remove an animal from the list, said Larry Bell, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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