A Mexican gray wolf at a holding pen in New Mexico.

A Mexican gray wolf runs around inside a holding pen at the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times / June 10, 2009)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday announced it intends to drop all federal protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states, carving out an exception for a struggling population of Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona.

The announcement means that federal scientists believe that wolves in the lower 48 states are no longer threatened with extinction and don't require the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act.

Wolf packs are well established in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies, as well as scattered populations in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, officials said.

Management of the animals will fall to individual states, where, in some cases, hunting of gray wolves has been allowed.

The agency also said it intends to continue protections for the small group of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, which is considered a distinct subspecies. 

The delisting rule is subject to a 90-day public comment period and will be finaliized within a year, officials said.