A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species Act (search) when it relaxed protections on many of the nation's gray wolves.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones (search) in Portland rescinds a rule change that allows ranchers to shoot wolves on sight if they are attacking livestock, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity (search), an environmental group.

In April 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (search) divided the wolves' range into three areas and reclassified the Eastern and Western populations as threatened instead of endangered.

The Eastern segment covers the area from the Dakotas east to Maine, and the Western segment extends west from the Dakotas. The agency left wolves in the Southwest classified as endangered.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is looking at the ruling to see what its implications are.

"We haven't had a wolf killed by a private citizen defending private property since the new rule went into effect," Bangs said. "I think most of it now is more in the potential range."