The federal government on Monday agreed to put gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region back on the endangered species list — at least temporarily.
The decision came less than two months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discontinued federal protection for about 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The agency acknowledged Monday that it erred by not holding a legally required public comment period before taking action.
Under a settlement with five environmental and animal protection groups that had sued the agency earlier this month, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would return Great Lakes wolves to the list while considering its next move.
They had been classified as endangered from 1974 until their removal May 4. About 1,300 wolves in Montana and Idaho also were dropped from the list then.
Because a public comment period was held in their case, they are not covered by the deal announced Monday and their status will not change. A separate lawsuit on that case will move forward.
About 300 wolves in Wyoming remain listed.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington, D.C., must approve the settlement for it to take effect. If the Fish and Wildlife Service tries again to remove the wolves from the endangered list, it will hold a 60-day comment period, the settlement says.
The agency still believes "wolves in the western Great Lakes have met the recovery criteria and don't need to be listed," Georgia Parham, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
Parham said federal officials had thought a comment period was not required because one had been held for a previous effort to reclassify the wolves. But they now agree another was needed, she said.
Activists warn against future perils
The activist groups that sued, including the Humane Society of the United States, say state plans for dealing with the wolves open the door to future hunting and trapping of the animals.
"This agreement will give the administration a much-needed opportunity to reconsider the failed wolf-management policies of the past, and hopefully put to rest the states' reckless plans to start sport hunting and trapping imperiled wolves," said Jonathan Lovvorn, a vice president of the Humane Society.
Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin contend their management plans will allow the species to continue flourishing.
The states recently have allowed people to kill wolves attacking livestock or pets. Those provisions would be nullified once wolves again are classified as endangered.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, after they had been wiped out across most of the lower 48 states in the early 20th century by hunting and government-sponsored poisoning.
Thanks to federal protection and changing attitudes, they've come back strongly in the western Great Lakes over the past two decades. Minnesota's estimated population is 2,922; Michigan's is 580; and Wisconsin's, 626.
The federal government has tried six times in the past five years to drop them from the endangered list but has been thwarted by lawsuits.