The government won't immediately try to take gray wolves in the Northern Rockies off the endangered species list, a federal wildlife official said Tuesday.
Ed Bangs, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinator, said the government in the next week expects to withdraw a rule that declared wolves fully recovered. That rule, issued in March, would have allowed public hunting for the region's approximately 1,500 wolves.
Wildlife agencies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have already started preparations for such hunts. But they had been in doubt since July, when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy blocked the states from going forward pending resolution of a lawsuit by environmentalists.
"Hopefully, they'll go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan that better protects wolves," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who had sued on behalf of a dozen environmental groups that argue wolves in the region remain imperiled.
The decision to withdraw the recovery rule is subject to final approval by the Department of Justice. Molloy also would have to sign off before it could take effect.
In his July injunction against the planned hunts, Molloy raised concerns about whether wolves would have enough genetic diversity, through breeding, to sustain their population.
Molloy also questioned Wyoming's lack of regulations on the killing of wolves. Outside Yellowstone National Park and adjacent areas, wolves are classified as predators, allowing them to be shot on sight.
Bangs, coordinator for the government's Northern Rockies wolf recovery program, said he still believes there are enough wolves to merit public hunting. But he said the government needs to adequately explain why wolves no longer need federal protection before making a new proposal.
"This means you do away with the de-listing rule and give it back to the Fish and Wildlife Service to think about more," he said. "There's going to be a thorough, fine-toothed comb going through it to decide what we can do better."