BILLINGS, Mont. - Federal wildlife officials have drafted plans to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that could end a decades-long recovery effort that has restored the animals but only in parts of their historic range.
The draft U.S. Department of Interior rule obtained by The Associated Press contends the roughly 6,000 wolves now living in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes are enough to prevent the species' extinction. The agency says having gray wolves elsewhere - such as the West Coast, parts of New England and elsewhere in the Rockies - is unnecessary for their long-term survival.
A small population of Mexican wolves in the Southwest would continue to receive federal protections, as a distinct subspecies of the gray wolf.
The loss of federal protections would be welcomed by ranchers and others in the agriculture industry, whose stock at times become prey for hungry wolf packs. Yet wildlife advocates say the proposal threatens to cut short the gray wolf's dramatic recovery from widespread extermination.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday the rule was under review and would be published in the Federal Register and opened to public comment before a final decision is made.
If the rule is enacted, it would transfer control of wolves to state wildlife agencies by removing them from the federal list of endangered species. The government has been considering such a move since at least 2011, but previously held off given concerns among scientists and wildlife advocates who warn it could effectively halt the species' expansion.
John Vucetich, a wolf specialist and biologist at Michigan Tech University, said suitable habitat remains in large sections of the Rockies, the nation's midsection and the Northeast. Wolves presently occupy only about 15 percent of their historical range, but that could be greatly expanded if humans allow it, he said.
"It ends up being a political question more than a biological one," Vucetich said. "It's very unlikely the wolves will make it to places like the Dakotas and the Northeast unless the federal government provides some kind of leadership."
Meanwhile, increasing wolf numbers in parts of the country have stirred a backlash from agricultural and hunting groups upset by the predator's attacks on livestock and big game herds such as elk. Their complaints spurred Western lawmakers two years ago to remove wolves from the endangered list in five states by force, after the issue got bogged down by environmentalists' lawsuits.