DENVER | The Bush administration removed the Canadian gray wolf from the Endangered Species List on Wednesday in every state except Wyoming, making a last-ditch bid to put states in charge of the animal's recovery in the face of staunch environmental opposition.
The decision marks the third time the administration has tried to delist the gray wolf. Previous efforts in 2007 and 2008 were blocked by federal judges, who sided with a coalition of environmental groups arguing, among other things, that state management proposals were inadequate.
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett yesterday cited the wolf´s ahead-of-schedule recovery numbers in the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes regions, as well as the efforts of states to address issues such as hunting and trapping seasons, control of problem animals, and the long-term health of the wolf population.
There are about 1,500 gray wolves in the northern Rockies and another 4,000 in the Great Lakes area. The wolves, which were nearly wiped out by hunting last century, had been listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered everywhere else.
"Wolves have recovered in the Great Lakes and the northern Rocky Mountains because of the hard work, cooperation and flexibility shown by states, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens in both regions," Mrs. Scarlett said. "We can all be proud of our various roles in saving this icon of the American wilderness."
Environmental groups denounced the decision, accusing the administration of trying to "prematurely strip wolves of legal protection before the clock runs out next Tuesday on the most anti-environment administration in American history," said Defenders of Wildlife in a statement.
The group promised to fight the decision in court and called on President-elect Barack Obama to re-examine the issue when his administration takes over next week.
"It is outrageous that the Bush administration has chosen to create this unnecessary legal problem for the new Obama administration to deal with as it takes office," said Defenders of Wildlife Pesident Rodger Schlickeisen.
Also unhappy with the decision was Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat who said he would wait for the state´s attorney general to review the ruling before reacting.
"I am obviously disappointed about what I know thus far, and will wait to issue further comment," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service issued a statement Wednesday saying that the agency would continue to manage the wolf in Wyoming because the state´s wolf-management plan was "not sufficient to conserve Wyoming´s portion of a recovered northern Rocky Mountain wolf population."
Governors in Idaho and Montana praised the decision while noting that the ruling isn't yet final. The decision is scheduled to take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, but could be held up for months in the face of a likely federal lawsuit.
"We support local control. Montanans know best how to manage our wildlife," said Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The Obama administration could also decide to delay the delisting while undertaking a review of the case.
"We´re cautiously optimistic at this point, but we understand there could be a long way to go until management is turned over to the state," said David Hensley, legal counsel to Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican.
The Bush administration delisted wolves in the Great Lakes region in March 2007 and those in the Rocky Mountains in February 2008. Both decisions were sent back for further review after separate federal lawsuits.
Gray wolves were airlifted from Canada into the Northern Rockies in 1995 as part of the federal wolf-recovery program. The original goal was to establish 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for at least three consecutive years.
The wolves thrived, meeting the recovery goal in 2002 and exceeding it in every year since. At the same time, ranchers have complained about packs attacking livestock and hunters and hikers have worried about their legal ability to protect themselves if confronted by wolves.
Wolves never disappeared from the Great Lakes region, but their numbers dipped to a few hundred in the 1970s. After being listed, the wolves have rebounded to about 4,000 throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.