Declaring the recovery of the gray wolf a success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the predator's status Tuesday from "endangered" to "threatened" in most of the United States.
The change means that wildlife managers -- and in some cases the public -- will have more leeway to kill wolves that are menacing livestock and pets. They will also be allowed to try to chase wolves away by shooting rubber bullets and shells containing firecrackers.
"Only a few decades ago, wolves were well on their way to extinction in the lower 48 states," said Steve Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Today, Americans can hear wolves howl in Yellowstone National Park or see their tracks in the snow in Michigan and Wisconsin."
Until now, the gray wolf was considered endangered in 47 states. Wolves in the Southwest and in Mexico, where recovery has not succeeded, will retain the status and the protections of an endangered species, officials said. Many animals nearing extinction around the world are included on the endangered species list, and the United States has worked with Mexico to help the gray wolf recover.
About 3,000 wolves range in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and an additional 660 wolves in 44 packs roam northwestern Montana, Idaho and the area in and around Yellowstone.
"Essentially, the gray wolf is recovered," said Craig Manson, the assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
The wildlife service also said it would soon start the process of removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list entirely. That proposal, expected this year, also will not include wolves in the so-called Southwestern distinct population segment, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, most of Texas and parts of Utah and Colorado.
Conservationists applauded the Fish and Wildlife Service for its efforts to restore robust wolf populations in the Northern Rockies and the Upper Midwest. But they said the agency was declaring victory too early because the gray wolf has returned to only a small portion of its historic range.
The "Fish and Wildlife Service has an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to recover wolves in a significant portion of their historic range," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the senior vice president for conservation programs at the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group.
Conservationists said they would like to see the wolf return to the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Maine and other areas that could provide good habitat.
"I don't think anybody is asking to have wolves in all 48 states, but to stop at two areas is premature," said Suzanne Stone, northwestern regional representative of Defenders of Wildlife, another national environmental group.
"Wolves used to live throughout the Pacific Northwest and we want them back," said Regina Neri of the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization based in California and dedicated to protecting and restoring natural environment.
The groups said they will challenge the agency's plan in court.
But Fish and Wildlife Service officials described their mandate differently. The Endangered Species Act calls on the agency to "pull species back from the brink of extinction for the foreseeable future," said Ron Refsnider, the agency's wolf recovery coordinator for the Midwest and the chief author of the plan.
"It doesn't direct us to recover species across their historic range. We don't have any plan to expand our recovery programs, and we don't think that's required."
The conservation groups also said they were worried that there could be significant setbacks for the animal's recovery once it loses federal protection and states take over management of the species.
There has been open hostility to wolves in some states, reflecting ranchers' ardent opposition to their return. Two years ago, the Idaho Legislature voted to remove all wolves from the state. Wyoming's wolf management plan, which was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, would allow anyone to kill wolves in the state unless they were on protected federal land such as Grand Teton or Yellowstone national parks.
"The state management plans might not be sufficient to ensure the long-term survival of the wolf in the states," said Nina Fascione, vice president of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.
But agency officials expressed confidence that the gray wolf would continue to thrive. If the species is taken off the list, federal authorities would continue to monitor its health and could list it again if necessary, they said.
"I don't know of any other better success story than what we have here with the gray wolf today," said Gary Frazer, assistant director of the Fish and Wildlife Service for endangered species.