The Interior Department on Thursday proposed to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the federal list of endangered and threatened species.
Wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, would no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Instead they would be shielded by state and tribal programs, Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a press conference call.
The final decision will be made in eight to 12 months following a public comment period.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, an arm of the Interior Department, estimates some 4,000 gray wolves now live in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, up from between 700 and 1,000 when the animal was classified as endangered in 1974.
The agency says the current population represents 80 percent of all the gray wolves in the 48 contiguous states.
“Certainly, in the western Great Lakes the wolves are back,” said John Kostyak, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation who attributed the recovery to cooperation between government officials and landowners.
“We’re seeing a very impressive rebound for the species that have enjoyed the protection of the ESA,” he said as the federation welcomed the delisting proposal.
In 2003 the Bush administration tried to downgrade the status of the wolf from endangered to threatened in most of the lower 48 states. But federal courts in Oregon and Vermont struck down the decision.
The agency said the proposed Great Lakes delisting is smaller in scope than the 2003 effort, and can be easily approved. A 90-day public comment period on the proposal begins next week.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that by 1960, the gray wolves were almost entirely eliminated from the three states in the northern Midwest, having starved from a lack of prey and been hunted for bounties for nearly 200 years.
“This is a species that over the centuries was basically extirpated from almost the entire lower 48 (states),” Kostyak said.
The proposal does not affect gray wolves in the West or in the Southwest, nor does it concern red wolves, a different species found in the Southeast.