By the NewsTribune staff
and The Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed lifting most remaining federal protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end four decades of recovery.
State and federal agencies spent more than $117 million restoring wolves since they were added to the endangered species list in 1974. Today there are at least an estimated 6,100 wolves in the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes where protections already have been lifted.
Management and protection of gray wolves would fall to states under the proposal.
The Obama administration signaled its reasons to move on. The wolf rebounded from near-extermination, parts of the ecosystem have been restored and some state laws permit licensed hunters to shoot wolves.
Prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more wolves in more places. They say protections should remain in force so the animals can expand beyond the 10 states they now occupy.
Lawsuits challenging the administration’s plan are almost certain.
It’s unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back entirely, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
“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.”
Additional territory in the Pacific Northwest, California, southern Rocky Mountains and northern New England is suitable for wolves, researchers said.
The gray wolf historically roamed the northern two-thirds of Illinois as well as 37 other states. By the 1930s, government-sponsored trapping and poisoning and declining prey left two small pockets of wolves in northern Minnesota and on Isle Royale in Lake Superior.
Minnesota had a bounty on wolves until 1965, followed by an open hunting season until 1974, when the gray wolf gained protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Wolf protections have since been lifted in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Big game hunters and livestock farmers welcomed the announcement.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and a rancher from Yakima, said he was “ecstatic” and believes the agency’s announcement would ranchers more willing to accept wolves on the landscape.
“Folks have to understand that in order to recover wolves, we’re going to have to kill problem wolves,” Field said
The agency’s proposal “is a far cry from what we envisioned for gray wolf recovery when we embarked on this almost 20 years ago,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the mid-1990s.
The primary barrier to wolf expansion isn’t lack of habitat or prey but human intolerance, said David Mech, a leading wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn. He believes wolves likely will migrate into several Western states.
However, dispersal to new areas requires preserving core populations, Mech said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also proposes continued federal protection for the remaining 75 southwestern Mexican wolves, a subspecies of gray wolf.
The service will take comments and information for 90 days on the proposals once it is published in the Federal Register.