The Bush administration on Wednesday announced plans to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountains regions from the federal endangered species list.
But wolves in Wyoming will remain under federal jurisdiction because that state has not done enough to assure their survival, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said.
Previous attempts by the federal government to remove wolves in both regions 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 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, and Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said Wednesday that it was "probable" that the state would challenge the latest federal plan in court.
No changes in western Great Lakes
In the western Great Lakes region, the federal government made no policy changes. The Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed with the judge's ruling and restated its case.
The wolves will be removed from the endangered species list 30 days after the decision is published in the Federal Register, which officials said could happen within the next two weeks. A small population of Mexican Gray wolves in the Southwest was not affected by Wednesday's announcement.
The decision could be reversed by President-elect Barack Obama's administration, said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro said the matter would be reviewed but offered no other details.
"President-elect Obama will review all eleventh-hour regulations and will address them once he is president," Shapiro said.
"We would hope ... the next administration would not turn around and go a different direction, but of course that certainly is their choice and opportunity," Scarlett said.
Scarlett also said that the decision was based on science independently of policy considerations and that it was a watershed moment for a species first listed as endangered in 1974.
"Returning this essential part of our national heritage to so much of our natural landscape ranks among our greatest conservation achievements," Scarlett said.
Support from some wolf experts
David Mech, a leading wolf expert and senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, supported the 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.
But environmental and animal rights groups, deriding the move as a last-minute effort by the Bush administration to strip protections, promised Wednesday to return to court with another round of lawsuits.
About 1,500 wolves in the Northern Rockies were taken off the list in February 2008. But a federal judge nullified the move in July, saying state management plans could not guarantee their recovery was sustainable.
The northern Rocky Mountain wolf segment includes all of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon, and a small part of north-central Utah.
Plans for public hunts
Idaho and Montana already have crafted plans for public hunts to keep wolf populations in check. There were no immediate plans for hunts in the western Great Lakes.
"We're the people that have to live with it," said Eric Svenson of Reed Point, Mont., where officials said wolves have killed two dozen sheep and goats on the Svenson Ranch.
"Maybe hunting will keep their population in check," Svenson said.
Last September, a federal judge sided with animal-rights groups that accused the government of misapplying the law in when it lifted protections for about 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2007.
Gray wolves previously were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened.