BILLINGS, Mont. - Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies will be removed from the endangered species list, following a 13-year restoration effort that helped the animal's population soar, federal officials said yesterday.
An estimated 1,500 wolves now roam Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. That represents a dramatic turnaround for a predator that was largely exterminated in the United States outside of Alaska in the early 20th century.
"Gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are thriving and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act," Interior Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett said. "The wolf's recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountains is a conservation success story."
The restoration effort, however, has been unpopular with ranchers and many others in the three states since it began in the mid-1990s, and today some state leaders want the population thinned significantly.
The states are planning to allow hunters to target the animals as soon as this fall. That angers environmental groups, which plan to sue over the delisting and say it's too soon to remove federal protection.
"The enduring hostility to wolves still exists," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who is preparing the lawsuit. "We're going to have hundreds of wolves killed under state management. It's a sad day for our wolves."
Plans submitted by Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming indicate the states likely will maintain between 900 and 1,250 wolves for the foreseeable future, federal officials said.
Wolves increasingly have preyed on livestock as they expanded into new territories. At the same time, ranchers and wildlife agents have made more wolf kills, which are allowed under the Endangered Species Act in response to livestock conflicts.
Since the late 1980s, 724 wolves have been killed legally, and roughly the same number is estimated to have been killed illegally by poachers. Despite that, the overall population has continued to grow at the rate of 24 percent a year.
"We've been managing wolves pretty aggressively for livestock problems, but there are still a ton of wolves over a big area," said Ed Bangs, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who led the wolf recovery effort.
The wolf was nearly wiped out in the West through a government eradication program in the 1930s.
Wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, and the government has spent more than $27 million on recovery efforts in the Northern Rockies.