TRAVERSE CITY (AP) — Federal officials are declaring victory in their four-decade campaign to rescue the gray wolf, a predator the government once considered a nuisance and tried to exterminate.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday proposed removing the animal’s remaining protections as an endangered species across the Lower 48 states. The exception would be in the Southwest, where the recovery effort for the related Mexican gray wolf is lagging.
Despite criticism from some scientists and members of Congress who consider the move premature, agency director Dan Ashe said the wolf can thrive and even enlarge its territory without continued federal protection.
“Taking this step fulfills the commitment we’ve made to the American people — to set biologically sound recovery goals and return wolves to state management when those goals have been met and threats to the species’ future have been addressed,” Ashe said.
The proposal will be subject to a 90-day public comment period and a final decision made within a year.
Wolves once roamed across most of North America. But trapping, poisoning and aerial shooting encouraged by federal bounties left just one small remnant, in northern Minnesota, by the time they were placed on the protected list in 1974.
By then, attitudes had shifted. Wildlife managers acknowledged the role predators play in providing balanced ecosystems, and the then-new Endangered Species Act mandated protections.
More than 6,100 wolves have now spread across portions of 10 states, primarily in the Northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes regions. Most are in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Packs also have formed in portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, Utah, the Dakotas, California and the Northeast.
But they have yet to return to vast additional territory that researchers say has suitable habitat and abundant prey, including parts of the Pacific Northwest, the southern Rocky Mountains, upstate New York and New England.