BILLINGS, Mont. — Wildlife officials from western states lobbied for strict limits on federal protections for gray wolves before the Obama administration proposed to take the animals off the endangered list across most of the Lower 48 states, documents show.
During private meetings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state officials threatened lawsuits and legislation as they pressed to exclude Colorado and Utah from a small area in the West where protections would remain in place.
The documents suggest the animal's fate was decided through political bargaining between state and federal officials, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The nonprofit group obtained the records through a freedom of information lawsuit and provided them to The Associated Press.
"In simplest terms, these documents detail how the gray wolf lost a popularity contest among wildlife managers," Ruch said.
Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director Gary Frazer rejected the assertion. He said science drove the administration's proposal, and the released documents reflect only a small portion of a years-long review of the legal status of gray wolves.
"It was not going in with some predetermined outcome," he said of the meetings with state officials. "It was to step back and engage experts from the state and federal agencies that are responsible for managing wolves."
The administration's plan unveiled earlier this month would declare gray wolves are only endangered in a relatively small part of the Southwest inhabited by a few dozen Mexican wolves — a subspecies of the gray wolf.
Meanwhile, gray wolves would lose protections on millions of acres in Colorado and Utah — an area the wildlife service earlier had said was suitable for wolves but currently has none of the predators.
The documents from 2010 and 2011 include detailed notes from closed-door meetings between state and federal officials, presentations by federal wildlife experts, and maps of potential wolf habitat.
The meetings laid the groundwork for the administration's proposal, which is expected to be finalized next year. It reflects the federal government's desire to largely exit the wolf restoration business following protracted and hotly contested programs in the northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes.
More than 6,000 wolves now roam those two regions after government-sponsored poisoning and trapping nearly exterminated wolves in the past century.
But with vast areas of wild habitat still devoid of gray wolves, some wildlife researchers and advocacy groups say it's too soon to say the species has recovered.
The documents show the government weighed a variety of factors beyond gray wolf survival, including economic impact on the livestock industry, public tolerance and other issues outside the scope of the Endangered Species Act.
Frazer said the government didn't take anything off the table during its discussions with the states but stressed that its final decision would be based solely on the authority provided by the act.
Under the pending proposal, Mexican wolves that spread into Colorado, Utah or other states still would be protected. That would not be true for wolves that dispersed south from the much larger northern Rockies population.
Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said the state supports the administration's plan. He declined to comment on how the federal government reached its conclusions.
Michigan Technological University biologist John Vucetich, a member of a scientific panel that advised the Fish and Wildlife Service on Mexican wolves, said the agency gave states too much deference. The panel's experts agreed that the Mexican wolf population would need to reach around 700 animals and cover significant parts of Colorado and Utah to survive in the long term, he said.
"It's almost as if the real limiting factor to wolves right now is not the intolerance of citizens who are shooting them," he said. "It's the intolerance of federal government to keep working on the problem."
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Mich.