BILLINGS – Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies will be removed from the federal endangered species list by late February, under a plan announced by the Bush administration Wednesday.
Left out of that plan were wolves in Wyoming, where officials have sought a “predator zone” across most 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.
Yet beyond that exception, Wednesday’s move was largely a repeat of the administration’s previous attempts to turn over control of wolves to state wildlife agencies. Those prior efforts were overruled by courts.
The incoming Obama administration will get a chance to review the federal proposal, but it was not immediately clear if a change in course was likely.
Department of Interior officials trumpeted their decision as a watershed moment for an iconic species first listed as endangered in 1974.
“Returning this essential part of our national heritage to so much our natural landscape ranks among our greatest conservation achievements,” Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said.
Environmental and animal rights groups derided the move as a last-minute effort by the Bush administration to strip protections from an animal they say remains at risk. They promised Wednesday to return to court with another round of lawsuits.
“These guys have been trying for eight years to explain how it could be possible for them to delist the wolves, and the courts keep shooting them down,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s time for them to throw in the towel.”
Idaho and Montana already have crafted plans for public hunts to keep wolf populations in check. There are no immediate plans for hunts in the western Great Lakes.
Last September, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington sided with animal-rights groups that accused the government of misapplying the law when it lifted protections for about 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2007.
About 1,500 wolves in the Northern Rockies were taken off the list in February 2008. But U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., 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.
Gray wolves previously were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened. A small population of Mexican Gray wolves in the Southwest were not affected by Wednesday’s announcement.
The federal government has approved wolf management plans in Montana and Idaho, but says Wyoming’s state law and wolf management plan fall short of providing needed protections. The federal recovery goal seeks a population of 300 wolves in Wyoming.
Federal officials said the decision to leave out Wyoming was in response to its “predator zone” covering almost 90 percent of the state. The only limits on hunting would be within a “trophy management area” in the northwestern corner of the state around Yellowstone National Park.
Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said a lawsuit challenging the federal plan was “probable.” He pointed out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had approved that idea in 2007.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service told us the area we subsequently designated as a trophy management area would be sufficient,” he said. “I don’t see that there is any viable criticism.”
The level of animosity over wolves seen in the Northern Rockies has been largely absent in the western Great Lakes. Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin also have crafted management plans approved by the government.
“We think this is a textbook example of how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work,” said Marvin Roberson, a Sierra Club policy specialist in Michigan who supports removing Great Lakes wolves from the federal endangered list.
The Interior Department’s decision will take effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register, which officials said could happen within the next two weeks.
The decision could be reversed by President-elect Barack Obama’s administration after he is sworn in Tuesday, said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Scarlett said that shouldn’t happen, contending the decision was based on science independently of policy considerations.
“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.
A spokesman for the Obama transition team said he could not immediately comment.
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