BILLINGS, Mont. – The Obama administration on Friday proposed lifting most remaining federal protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end four decades of recovery efforts but some scientists criticized as premature.
State and federal agencies have spent more than $117 million restoring the predators since they were added to the endangered species list in 1974. Today more than 6,100 wolves roam portions of the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes where protections already have been lifted.
With Friday’s announcement, the administration signaled it’s ready to move on: The wolf has rebounded from near-extermination, balance has been restored to parts of the ecosystem, and hunters in some states already are free to shoot the animals under state oversight.
But prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more. They say protections for wolves need to remain in force so the animals can expand beyond the portions of 10 states they now occupy.
Lawsuits challenging the administration’s plan are almost certain.
The gray wolf’s historical range stretched across most of North America, before government-sponsored trapping and poisoning left just one small pocket of the animals, in northern Minnesota.
In the past several years, after the Great Lakes population swelled and wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, protections were lifted in states where the vast majority of the animals now live: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Under the administration’s plan, protections would remain only for a fledgling population of Mexican gray wolves in the desert Southwest. The proposal will be subject to a public comment period and a final decision made within a year.
While the wolf’s recent resurgence is likely to continue at some level elsewhere – multiple packs roam portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, California, Utah, the Dakotas and the Northeast – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe indicated it’s unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back entirely.
“Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered,” he said. “Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no.”
Hunting and agriculture groups wary of increasing wolf attacks on livestock and big game welcomed the announcement.
Hunters and trappers already are targeting the predators in states where protections previously were lifted. They’ve killed about 1,600 wolves in the past several years in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Michigan is planning a wolf hunting season this fall
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and a rancher from Yakima, said he was “ecstatic” over the agency’s announcement.