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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar calls the resurgence of wolves a great success story of the Endangered Species Act as the U.S government prepares to end federal wolf protection in the western Great Lakes region by year's end. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service file photo)

U.S. Interior Secretary heralds wolf delisting

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The U.S government on Wednesday formally announced its move to end federal wolf protection in the western Great Lakes region by year's end, saying management of the animals should be handed back to state and tribal governments.

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The move was reported last month but was heralded by top Interior Department officials Wednesday as they took formal action.

Wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have biologically recovered from the brink of extinction and "no longer need the protection of the

Endangered Species Act," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a teleconference with reporters, calling the resurgence of wolves a great success story of the act and "a remarkable milestone for an iconic American species."

After three failed efforts to delist Great Lakes wolves over the past decade, all thwarted by court action, the government this time is trying a new twist -- declaring gray wolves in the region a separate species from eastern wolves.

The gray wolf, Canis lupus, is the one listed on the endangered species list and the one proposed to be removed. At the same time, the federal government will examine the status of eastern wolves, Canis lycaon, and determine what -- if anything -- should be done to restore that species across eastern states, where it no longer exists.

The result of that status review could stall the delisting effort if the "new" eastern wolf is found in need of protections because the two species are nearly impossible to tell apart without DNA analysis.

Meanwhile, the government published a final regulation Wednesday ending wolf protection across much of the western U.S. based on legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Obama last month.

Wolves will lose federal protection starting today across the northern Rocky Mountains, with wolf management handed back to states and tribes. The lone exception is Wyoming, where federal protections will remain until the state has passed a wolf-management plan that's protective enough for federal regulators. Wyoming's plan currently allows wolves to be killed on-site in most areas, which is unacceptable to the federal government.

By the mid-1970s, wolf numbers in all of the continental U.S. had dwindled to just a few hundred, all located in Minnesota's Superior National Forest. Now, after 35 years of Endangered Species Act protection, there are about 3,200 wolves in Minnesota, nearly 800 in Wisconsin and about 600 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There are also about 1,700 wolves across the northern Rockies.

But until delisting occurs, wolves remain off-limits to trapping, hunting or harassment, except in Minnesota, where federal trappers kill about 180 wolves each year near where livestock or pets have been attacked.

State natural-resource agencies, livestock farmers, hunting groups and members of Congress have called for an end to federal protections so more wolves can be trapped and shot.

But pro-wolf groups have called for the federal government to continue protections in the Great Lakes region 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.

"It's not a victory for wolves yet if they are only recovered in 5 percent of their original range," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "What (federal regulators) are saying is that they are washing their hands from any wolf recovery across the rest of the country."

A public hearing to take testimony on the western Great Lakes wolf plan is set for May 18 at the Western Great Lakes Visitors Center near Ashland. For more information on gray wolves, go to fws.gov/midwest/wolf. Comments on the federal wolf plan can be made at regulations.gov by following the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029].

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