BILLINGS, Montana – Wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains will be removed from the endangered species list within the next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, a move that would open the population up to trophy hunting.
Federal officials are expected to announce the plan Monday, said Sharon Rose, a spokeswoman for the service, on Monday. The agency also will finalize removal from the list of a separate population of wolves in the Great Lakes region.
Federal officials for months have been readying a proposal calling for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to assume management of the 1,200-plus wolves in their states. The plan would go into effect following a yearlong comment and review period, Rose said.
If the proposal for the Rocky Mountain gray wolf skirts expected legal challenges and becomes law, it would open wolves there to trophy hunting for the first time since an intensive restoration effort began in the late 1980s. The Great Lakes wolves would be protected from public hunting for at least five years.
A similar proposal made last year to take about 4,000 wolves off the endangered list in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin is being finalized, Rose said.
Gray wolves were virtually eliminated across the West by the 1930s following a prolonged, government-sponsored eradication effort. The animal was declared endangered in 1974, shortly after passage of the Endangered Species Act.
Federal and state biologists previously have said that each of the Rocky Mountain states would be required to maintain a minimum of 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, or the animal would again come under federal protection. Before reaching that minimum, hunting restrictions would kick in if the number of breeding pairs dropped to 15.
"We have no concern about the long-term future of wolves," said Ed Bangs, coordinator of the Northern Rockies wolf recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "The numbers will remain safely above that (10 breeding pairs per state), and the states have guaranteed that."
But Jamie Rappaport Clark with Defenders of Wildlife said that with the exception of Montana, the state plans come up short.
"We are absolutely certain removing northern Rocky Mountain wolves from the endangered species list at this time will only jeopardize their continued recovery," Clark said.
Others claim the federal government is not moving fast enough. Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, based in Montana, is seeking state assistance for a planned lawsuit to make the delisting effective immediately because wolves are preying on the elk herd and hurting its population.
Fish and Wildlife officials are still negotiating with Wyoming over its proposed management plan. Wyoming wants more latitude to kill wolves when necessary to protect livestock and wildlife.
If the dispute with Wyoming is not resolved before the Fish and Wildlife Service delisting proposal is final, federal officials have said they may exclude Wyoming from the delisting program.