BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The Obama administration on Friday will propose lifting most of the remaining federal protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end four decades of recovery efforts but has been criticized by some scientists as premature.
With more than 6,100 wolves roaming the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told The Associated Press that a species persecuted to near-extermination last century has successfully rebounded.
But prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more. They say wolves need to be shielded so they can expand beyond the portions of 10 states they now occupy.
The animal's historical range stretched across most of North America.
Government-sponsored trapping and poisoning left just one small pocket of wolves remaining, in northern Minnesota, by the time they received endangered species protections in 1974.
In the past several years, after the Great Lakes population swelled and wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, protections were lifted in states where the vast majority of the animals now live: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Under the administration's plan, federal protections would remain only for a fledgling population of Mexican gray wolves in the desert Southwest. The proposal will be subject to a public comment period and a final decision made within a year.
While the wolf's recent resurgence is likely to continue at some level elsewhere - multiple packs roam portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, Utah and the Northeast - Ashe indicated it's unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back entirely.
"Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered," he said. "Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no."
Hunters and trappers already are targeting the predators in states where protections previously were lifted. They've killed some 1,600 wolves in the past several years in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
That's been a relief for ranchers who suffer regular wolf attacks that can kill dozens of livestock in a single night. Supporters say lifting protections elsewhere will help avoid the animosity seen among many ranchers in the West, who long complained that their hands were tied by rules restricting when wolves could be killed.
Yet vast additional territory that researchers say is suitable for wolves remains unoccupied. That includes parts of the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and northern New England.
Colorado alone has enough space to support up to 1,000 wolves, according to Carlos Carroll of California's Klamath Center for Conservation Research. He suggested wildlife officials were bowing to political pressure, exerted by elected officials across the West who pushed to limit the wolf's range.
"They've tried to devise their political position first, and then cherry-pick their science to support it," Carroll said of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Center for Biological Diversity on Friday vowed to challenge the government in court if it takes the animals off the endangered species list as planned.
Ashe said Friday's proposal had been reviewed by top administration officials, including new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But he dismissed any claims of interference and said the work that went into the plan was exclusively that of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
He said the agency wants to focus future recovery efforts on a small number of wolves belonging to a subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf. Those occur in Arizona and New Mexico, where a protracted and costly reintroduction plan has stumbled in part due to illegal killings.
The agency is calling for a tenfold increase in the territory where biologists are working to rebuild that population, which now numbers 73 animals. Law enforcement efforts to ward off poaching in the region would be bolstered.
Although wolves roam only a small portion of their historical range, it's about 80 percent of the area they realistically could be expected to occupy today, said David Mech, a leading wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn.
The primary barrier to expansion isn't lack of habitat or prey, but human intolerance, he said.
"People are afraid. In some areas, they're afraid to let their kids out to wait for the school bus in the morning. I don't think that fear is going to dissipate," he said.
Even without federal protection, wolves are likely to migrate into several Western states, Mech said.
Sections of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Northern California might have enough habitat, prey and isolation from humans for wolves to thrive, he said. But he added that might not happen if hunters kill so many Northern Rockies wolves that it reduces the number that would disperse from packs and seek new turf.
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Mich.
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