CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The federal government will end protections for wolves in Wyoming, where the effort to revive the predator from near extinction in the United States began about 20 years ago.
The announcement Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorses a plan that allows the wolves to be shot on sight in most parts of the state. It retains protections in certain areas.
"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 declared.
The move quickly sparked promises of legal challenges from environmental groups, which argue wolves still need protection to maintain their successful recovery.
"Today's removal of wolves in Wyoming from the endangered species list is a tragic ending to what has otherwise been one of America's greatest wildlife conservation success stories," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. "Now we are left with no choice but to pursue legal action to ensure that a healthy, sustainable wolf population remains in Wyoming and across the Northern Rockies for many generations to come."
In announcing the decision, Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledged the opposition it would face.
"You're going to hear, I think, a fair amount of rhetoric of unregulated killing and trapping and open seasons and free-fire zones," Ashe said.
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 rose up and centered on starting the recovery in Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming.
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.
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 earlier and still more in Washington and Oregon.
Wyoming has been chaffing under federal wolf protections for years. Ranchers and hunters complain that wolves kill too many cattle and other wildlife.
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 state will take over management of the wolves under its purview effective Sept. 30.
The Wyoming Game Commission has approved wolf hunts starting Oct. 1. 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
Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine said Wyoming's plan would allow aerial gunning of wolves and killing wolf pups in their den.
Ashe said he understood the "emotional reaction to wolf hunting" but he said hunting 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.
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."