ATLANTA, Mich. – After devoting four decades and tens of millions of dollars to saving the gray wolf, the federal government wants to get out of the wolf-protection business, leaving it to individual states – and the wolves themselves – to determine the future of the legendary predator.
The Obama administration Wednesday declared more than 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have recovered from widespread extermination and will be removed from the endangered species list.
“Gray wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes region,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Coupled with an earlier move that lifted protections in five western states, the decision puts the gray wolf at a historical crossroads – one that could test both its reputation for resilience and the tolerance of ranchers and hunters who bemoan its attacks on livestock and big game.
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. Now, the legal shield making it a crime to gun them down is being lifted in the only two sections of the lower 48 states where significant numbers exist.
State officials said they will keep wolf numbers healthy, but all three western Great Lakes states will allow wolves to be shot if they are caught assaulting farm animals or pets.
Since being declared endangered in 1974, the American wolf population has grown fivefold – to about 6,200 animals wandering parts of 10 states outside Alaska.
Also Wednesday, the government put off a decision on protections in 29 Eastern states that presently have no wolves. The Interior Department said it still was reconsidering its prior claim that wolves in those states historically were a separate species, which effectively would cancel out protections now in place.
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 Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species program.
In Montana and Idaho, where wolves can be legally hunted and trapped, officials want to drive down wolf numbers this winter to curb attacks on farm animals and elk.
Some scientists and advocates say the hunts show what will happen when federal safeguards are lifted elsewhere. The government, they say, is abandoning 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.
North America was once home to as many as 2 million gray wolves. By the 1930s, fur traders, bounty hunters and government agents had poisoned, trapped and shot almost all wolves outside Canada and Alaska.
The surviving 1,200 were clustered in northern Minnesota in the 1970s. With endangered species protection, their numbers rocketed to nearly 3,000 in the state and they gradually spread elsewhere.
Idaho has been the most aggressive in reducing wolf numbers, offering a 10-month hunting season that sets no limits. State officials say they intend to reduce the population from 750 to as few as 150 – the minimum the federal government says is needed in each Northern Rockies state to keep the animal off the endangered list.