BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The Obama administration on Friday proposed lifting most of the remaining federal protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end four decades of recovery efforts but has been criticized by some scientists as premature.
With more than 6,100 wolves roaming the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told The Associated Press that a species persecuted to near-extermination last century has successfully rebounded.
But prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more. They say wolves need to be shielded so they can expand beyond the portions of 10 states they now occupy. The animal's historical range stretched across most of North America.
Government-sponsored trapping and poisoning left just one small pocket of wolves remaining, in northern Minnesota, by the time they received endangered species protections in 1974.
In the past several years, after the Great Lakes population swelled and wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, protections were lifted in states where the vast majority of the animals now live: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Under the administration's plan, federal protections would remain only for a fledgling population of Mexican gray wolves in the desert Southwest. The proposal will be subject to a public comment period and a final decision made within a year.
While the wolf's recent resurgence is likely to continue at some level elsewhere - multiple packs roam portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, Utah and the Northeast - Ashe indicated it's unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back entirely.