The Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list drew praise from ranchers and condemnation from environmental groups, who say they will take legal action to retain federal protection.

Occasionally overshadowed in recent years by the debate over the greater sage-grouse, the announcement is a reminder of the wolf’s significance in debates over the Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973. The species has been federally protected in the lower 48 states since 1978, but populations in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains were protected under the ESA even before that. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.

In a statement, a FWS spokesperson said acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had announced that the service “will soon propose a rule to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states and return management of the species back to the states and tribes.”

The wolf’s recovery “is one of our nation's great conservation successes,” the spokesperson said.

Jennifer Houston, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and Bob Skinner, president of the Public Lands Council, said in a joint statement the proposal is long overdue. “Science has long shown the species had reached stable population levels,” they said.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., also said the decision was guided by science.

“We can see in Washington state that the wolf population is growing quickly while being effectively managed by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in the eastern third of the state,” he said.

Wolves are already delisted and under state management in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and parts of Utah. Management plans in those states were deemed adequate to protect the species. The proposal will not cover endangered Mexican wolves in the Southwest or endangered red wolves in North Carolina.

The latest estimates show about 3,700 wolves in the Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, and about 1,700 in the Northern Rockies. Great Lakes wolves are listed as threatened — the rung of federal protection below endangered.

“When the federal government collaborates with state wildlife officials and local land managers, it enhances our ability to protect the wildlife and ecosystems that we all cherish,” Houston and Skinner said. “This is exactly how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work.” Ranchers have long complained that the growing wolf population has resulted in more deaths and injuries of livestock.

Environmental groups swiftly criticized the announcement. Colette Adkins, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said “the courts have repeatedly slammed the Fish and Wildlife Service for prematurely removing wolf protections, but the agency has now come back with its most egregious scheme yet. Once again, we’ll take it to the courts and do everything we can to stop this illegal effort to kill wolf protections.”

Jamie Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said “the return of the wolf to the northern Rockies and Great Lakes is one of America’s greatest conservation successes, but wolves are still absent from much of their historic range where there is suitable habitat. The work of recovering this iconic species is not done and we will vigorously oppose this action.”

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