Gray wolves will be fair game for hunters in parts of the northern Rocky Mountains after federal officials announced Thursday that they would be taken off the endangered species list.
The decision, which is expected to face lengthy litigation, comes after a 20-year effort to reestablish gray wolf populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
"The wolves took the opportunity that Fish and Wildlife Service, the states and the tribes gave them and ran with it," Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett said. "Wolves are back."
The three states have started planning for the fall hunting season. Montana submitted its wolf plan the day before delisting, and Idaho and Wyoming will finalize their plans in the coming months.
Environmental groups were dismayed by the decision, calling it shortsighted and a political concession to ranching and hunting interests.
"It's a huge step back for wolf recovery in the Rockies," said Doug Honnold, managing attorney for the northern Rockies office of Earth Justice, an environmental group. "The sad part is that we're approaching legitimate biological recovery, but we're not there yet."
Honnold said he would serve a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service next week on behalf of environmental organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Gray wolves once were plentiful from central Mexico to the Arctic, but were killed off for decades, and by the 1930s had virtually disappeared from the American West. In 1974, they were listed as endangered. Since then about $27 million has been spent by the federal government to conserve the wolves.
In 1995 and 1996, officials reintroduced 66 wolves to central Idaho and the Yellowstone National Park area. The population has since surpassed the goal of a stable population of at least 300 animals, to more than 1,500 throughout the northern Rockies region. That population is increasing by about 24% annually, according to wildlife officials.
The delisting will affect Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of central Utah. It will take effect March 28. Last year, gray wolves were delisted in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota after the region's population hit about 4,000. That delisting is being litigated.
All three Rocky Mountain states were required to submit wolf management plans for a delisted population before Thursday's announcement, and they have agreed to maintain a minimum population of about 150 wolves per state. Ed Bangs, Fish and Wildlife's wolf recovery coordinator, who headed the reintroduction effort, predicted that the regional population would not fall below 900 to 1,200 wolves.
"It's a pretty good feeling to know this final part of this recovery project is happening, and the future conservation of wolves is secure in state hands," he said.
In Wyoming, the state Game and Fish Department will maintain at least seven breeding pairs, or half the current number, outside Yellowstone National Park, Bangs said. The term "breeding pair" refers to a successfully reproducing wolf pack; a pack usually includes about 14 animals, he said.
The Wyoming plan classifies some wolf populations as "trophy game animals," subject to certain rules including kill limits, and others are deemed "predatory," allowing wolves "to be taken at any time by anybody," said Eric Keszler, a spokesman for the Game and Fish Department. This includes methods such as baiting and aerial shooting, he said.
About 724 wolves have been killed in the region since 1987 because of conflicts with livestock, Bangs said.
In Idaho, which has about 732 wolves, the plan calls for maintaining a population of about 500 to 700 animals.
"We're not going to drop these populations down to minimum levels," said Steve Nadeau, who oversees the wolf program for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "The state has a plan to stabilize these populations, and we realize that wolf populations are here to stay, and we're going to do a good job at managing them," Nadeau said. "The whole world is watching, and we know it."
Montana officials said they probably would try to maintain the current level of about 422 wolves, allowing hunters to kill only the 24% surplus.
If the numbers fell below minimum levels for three consecutive years, relisting would be considered, Bangs said.
Some scientists say the delisting does not take into account the long-term genetic viability and sustainment of the wolf population in the Rockies.
About four years ago, a UCLA study found that the population of gray wolves in the Yellowstone area was genetically isolated and not breeding with other reintroduced populations in the northern Rockies area.
But state and wildlife officials say that the research doesn't extend to all three states and that it makes unrealistic assumptions.
"The whole goal for listing wolves is to delist wolves, and why would you not want to do that if everything is ready to go?" Nadeau said. "It's just a success, and it's time to let the states . . . get on with managing wolves as they're meant to be managed."