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Gray wolves go back to state control

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Obama administration today announced it is lifting endangered species act protections for 5,500 gray wolves in eight states in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes.

The move essentially draws the line on the predators’ rapid expansion over the last two decades. Public hunts for hundreds of wolves already are planned this fall in Idaho and Montana, and Interior Department officials said Wednesday that the most suitable wolf habitat is already occupied.

Conservationists have hailed the animal’s recovery from near extinction last century as a landmark achievement that that should be extended to the Pacific Northwest and New England. But the federal wolf program has stirred a backlash from agriculture and sporting groups angry over wolf attacks on livestock on livestock and big game herds.

Western lawmakers attached a rider to the federal budget bill mandating the move for 1,300 wolves in the Northern Rockies. The rider blocked legal challenges and marked the first time Congress has stripped a species of protections.

“To be sure, not everyone will be satisfied with today’s announcement,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “Wolves have long been a highly charged issue. These delistings are possible because the species is recovered in this region. That is a remarkable milestone for an iconic American species.”

About 4,200 wolves listed as threatened in the western Great Lakes also are slated to lose protections following a public comment period.