Posted on December 21, 2011 at 9:45 AM
ATLANTA, Michigan (AP) -- After devoting four decades and tens of millions of dollars to saving the gray wolf, the U.S. government is considering getting out of the wolf-protection business, leaving it to individual states -- and the wolves themselves -- to determine the future of the legendary predator.
The gray wolf has recovered from near-extinction in the lower 48 states and now stands at a historical crossroads that could test both its reputation for resilience and the tolerance of ranchers and hunters who bemoan its attacks on livestock and big game.
Since being added to the federal endangered species list in 1974, the American wolf population has grown fivefold -- to about 6,200 animals wandering parts of 10 states outside Alaska.
But the legal shield that made it a federal crime to gun down the wolves is being lifted in many areas -- even though wolves have returned only to isolated pockets of the territory they once occupied, and increasing numbers are dying at the hands of hunters, wildlife agents and ranchers protecting livestock.
Wolves "are in the best position they've been in for the past 100 years," said David Mech, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a leading wolf expert. The animals' long-term survival will "depend on how much wild land remains available, because wolves are not compatible with areas that are agricultural and have a lot of humans. There's just too much conflict."
Congress last spring canceled the animals' endangered status in five Western states.
Now the Obama administration is taking gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region off the federal endangered species list, according to a statement Wednesday obtained by The Associated Press. In it, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the more than 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have exceeded recovery goals and no longer need federal protection.
The Interior Department also says it's reconsidering a previously announced plan to remove endangered species protections for wolves in 29 Eastern states, even though they aren't believed to have any established wolf populations. Officials say they'll decide on the status of Eastern wolves later.
Since 1991, the federal government has spent $92.6 million on gray wolf recovery programs, and state agencies have chipped in $13.9 million, according to documents reviewed by the Associated Press.
"We are ready to declare success in those areas where wolves are now secure, turn over management responsibility to the states and begin to focus our limited resources on other species that are in trouble," said Gary Frazer, assistant director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species program.
In Montana and Idaho, where wolves can now be legally hunted and trapped, officials are seeking to sharply drive down wolf numbers this winter to curb attacks on farm animals and elk herds.
Some scientists and advocates say the hunts offer a preview of what will happen when the federal safeguards are lifted elsewhere. The government, they say, is giving up the recovery effort too soon, before packs can take hold in new areas. Vast, wild territories in the southern Rockies and Northeast are ripe for wolves but unoccupied.
"The habitat is there. The prey is there. Why not give them the chance?" said Chris Amato, New York's assistant commissioner for natural resources.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.