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Wolves no longer protected in Northern Rockies

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BILLINGS, Montana (AP) -- Wolves in parts of the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes region come off the endangered species list on Monday, opening them to public hunts in some U.S. states for the first time in decades.

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Federal officials say the population of gray wolves in those areas has recovered and is large enough to survive on its own. The animals were listed as endangered in 1974, after they had been wiped out across the lower 48 states by hunting and government-sponsored poisoning.

"We've exceeded our recovery goals for nine consecutive years, and we fully expect those trends will continue," said Seth Willey, regional recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver.

With the delisting, state wildlife agencies will have full control over the animals. States such as Idaho and Montana plan to resume hunting the animals this fall, but no hunting has been proposed in the Great Lakes region.

Ranchers and livestock groups, particularly in the Rockies, have pushed to strip the endangered status in hopes that hunting will keep the population in check.

About 300 wolves in Wyoming will remain on the list because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the state's plan for a "predator zone" where wolves could be shot on sight. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and a coalition of livestock and hunting groups have announced a lawsuit against the federal government over the decision.

Freudenthal, a Democrat, claimed "political expediency" was behind the rejection of his state's wolf plan.

Wolves were taken off the endangered list in the Northern Rockies -- including Wyoming -- for about five months last year. After environmentalists sued, a federal judge in Montana restored the protections and cited Wyoming's predator zone as a main reason. In the Great Lakes, the animal was off the list beginning in 2007 until a judge in Washington last September ordered them protected again.

Environmental and animal rights groups have also said they planned to sue over the delisting, claiming that there are still not enough wolves to guarantee their survival. The groups point to Idaho's plan to kill up to 100 wolves believed to have killed elk.

"We understand that hunting is part of wildlife policy in the West," said Anne Carlson with the Western Wolf Coalition. "(But) wolves should be managed like native wildlife and not as pests to be exterminated."

The delisting review began under the administration of President George W. Bush and the proposal was upheld by President Barack Obama's administration after an internal review. In a recent letter to several members of Congress, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, wrote that he was "confident that science justifies the delisting of the gray wolf."

Willey said his agency projected there would be between 973 and 1302 wolves in the Northern Rockies under state management, a number well above the 300 wolves set as the original benchmark for the animal's recovery.

More than 1,300 wolves roam the mountains of Montana and Idaho and an estimated 4,000 live in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

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