CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The federal government will end its protections for wolves in Wyoming, where the species was introduced two decades ago to revive it from near extinction in the United States.
The announcement Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entrusts the state with managing wolf numbers and endorses a plan that allows for them to be shot on sight in most of the state, while keeping them permanently protected in designated areas like Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming will take over management of the wolves at the end of September.
The decision of the announcement quickly sparked promises of legal challenges from environmental groups that argue wolves still need protection to maintain their successful recovery. Dan Ashe, the agency's director, acknowledged the "emotional reaction to wolf hunting" but said it would not be "detrimental to long-term conservation of wolves."
"Quite the contrary, it will support long-term conservation of wolves as it has other predators like mountain lion and grizzly bear and black bear," Ashe said.
Wyoming has been chaffing under federal wolf protections for years, with ranchers and hunters complaining that wolves kill other wildlife and many cattle.
North America was once home to as many as 2 million gray wolves, but by the 1930s, fur traders, bounty hunters and government agents had poisoned, trapped and shot them to near extinction in the continental United States. An effort to revive their numbers emerged and centered on starting the recovery in Yellowstone.
Overcoming protests from Wyoming farmers and ranchers who feared wolves would prey on their livestock, wildlife managers transplanted 14 wolves from Canada into Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. The effort exceeded all expectations as wolf numbers quickly multiplied, and Friday's action means Wyoming can now take measures to control their population outside the Greater Yellowstone vicinity.
"The wolf population in Wyoming is recovered, and it is appropriate that the responsibility for wolf management be returned to the state," Gov. Matt Mead said Friday in support of the federal decision.
There are about 270 wolves in Wyoming outside Yellowstone. There are about another 1,100 or so in Montana and Idaho, where wolves were delisted several years ago, and still more in Washington and Oregon.
Wyoming's management plan, which was agreed to last year by Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, calls for the state to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 100 individual animals. Additional wolves inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway — which is located between Yellowstone and Grand Teton — and the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming will maintain protection from being hunted.
The state will classify wolves in the remaining 90 percent of Wyoming as predators, subject to being killed anytime by anyone.
The Wyoming Game Commission has approved wolf hunts starting on Oct. 1, the day after the state's management plan goes into effect. The state is prepared to issue unlimited hunting licenses but will call a halt after hunters kill 52 wolves.
Wildlife advocates said Wyoming's management plan allows the state too much freedom to hunt wolves.
"From our perspective the Wyoming wolf management plan is just a disaster for the wolf. It drastically reduces the population and basically eliminates wolves from a large part of the state," said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement that the organization would pursue legal action "to ensure that a healthy, sustainable wolf population."
Bryce Reece, executive vice president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, said ranchers for too long had their hands tied in trying to stop wolves attacking their livestock.
"The reality is my folks aren't in any big rush to get there to try to kill a wolf. They just want the ability to protect their livestock," Reece said. "We are hopeful, by putting some pressure on them, they'll move back into areas where it's less habited and there's less livestock."
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown contributed to this report from Billings, Mont.