Protections for wolf, grizzly might be lifted

By Laura Zuckerman
Sunday, December 5, 2010

SALMON, Idaho - The Obama administration is seeking to lift Endangered Species Act protections from two of the most iconic symbols of the American West, the gray wolf and grizzly bear, in moves likely to spark fierce resistance from environmentalists.

The administration's intentions emerged in an interview on Wednesday with two top-ranking officials from the Interior Department, whose agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, oversees federal safeguards for the bulk of imperiled species.

The grizzly and gray wolf occupy the figurative pinnacle of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem encompassing parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Previous efforts to remove them from the U.S. endangered species list have met with staunch opposition in court from wildlife conservation groups.

Environmentalists have raised concerns that although both species have made a comeback under protection as endangered species, their recovery could falter if they were de-listed, a move that is likely to open the animals to public hunting.

Sportsmen and ranchers, who make up a powerful constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated de-listing wolves and grizzlies, saying the predators are diminishing herds of big-game animals such as elk and are preying on livestock.

Wolves and grizzlies were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction in the lower 48 states before they were eventually added to the endangered species list.

Federal protection of wolves has been especially controversial since they were reintroduced to the wild in the Rockies in the mid-1990s despite strong objections of ranchers.

Under pressure from livestock interests and state wildlife managers, the federal government in April 2009 removed the wolf from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho while keeping protections in Wyoming.

But a federal judgethis year ordered full listing restored, saying the wolves' entire range in the Rockies must be treated as a whole and that protections cannot be left intact in Wyoming while they are lifted in other states.

Tom Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said on Wednesday that the Obama administration planned to propose lifting Endangered Species Act protection for wolves in all three states and would seek congressional action if necessary.

De-listing means states would assume management of the estimated 1,700 wolves in the Northern Rockies - about 1,000 more than the federal recovery goal for the species.

In the same interview, Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Dan Ashe said his agency also "will de-list the grizzly" in the Yellowstone region.

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