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Feds may delist wolves in 2011

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U.S. Interior Department officials have pledged to members of Congress that the eastern timber wolf will be removed from the endangered species list sometime in 2011, though the move would still face legal scrutiny.

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The pledge went to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Thursday after she and other members of Minnesota's congressional delegation had been pressuring the Interior Department to take action.

It's the latest update in a decades-long saga over how wolves should be managed in the western Great Lakes.

In a letter to Klobuchar dated Dec. 9, Thomas Strickland, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, pledged a proposal would be made public in April and that a new rule on wolf management could be final by the end of 2011.

"We now have a timetable that we didn't have before," said Georgia Parham, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman.

But agency officials cautioned that the proposal first must pass scientific review, be biologically credible and be subject to public comment. The end result would return management of wolves to state and tribal wildlife agencies and is the next step needed for states to allow trapping and hunting of wolves as they see fit.

There are about 3,200 wolves in Minnesota and about 700 each in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- many more than federal officials expected when the animal first received federal protection in 1974.

Wolves in the region are off-limits to trapping, hunting or harassment, except in Minnesota, where federal trappers kill wolves near where livestock or pets have been attacked. State natural resource agencies, livestock farmers and hunting groups -- and members of Congress -- all have called for an end to federal protections so more wolves can be trapped and shot.

On Friday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said the delisting proposal would include the biological basis for ending federal protection as well as "addressing the current status of wolves in the region and evaluating any continued threats to the species." The agency would then take public input and hopes to publish a final rule by the end of 2011.

It will be the third such delisting effort for the feds over the past decade, with the first two thwarted by lawsuits and court decisions that have returned wolves to federal protections each time.

The federal government in September published its intentions on eastern wolves in the Federal Register, but the effort will take about another year for the agency to draft a biologically-sound proposal, consider public input and formally publish the details.

Agency officials say they have spent the past two years gathering data that support their effort to de-list wolves and that this proposal is more likely to stand up to legal challenges. Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Friday in a news release that she stands ready to introduce legislation that would thwart additional legal challenges, though it's not clear how that would work.

Meanwhile, pro-wolf groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, have called for the federal government to continue protections in the Great Lakes until wolves have been restored across far more areas of their original range -- including eastern states where they don't exist. Wolf supporters say the eagerness of some groups to kill wolves shows attitudes have not changed enough to end protections.

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