A gray wolf is seen on the run near Blacktail Pond in Yellowstone National Park in Park County, Wyo. The Obama administration on Friday proposedlifting federal protections for gray wolves across most of the Lower 48 states. (Yellowstone National Park/AP)

The federal government took steps Friday to remove endangered species protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states, contending that the population of the apex predator has recovered from decades of hunting that drove it to virtual extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed removing the gray wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species, noting that 6,100 wolves now roam the contiguous United States, the vast majority of them in the northern Rockies and western Great Lakes regions. Protections were removed for wolves in those areas in 2011 and 2012; the new rule would end protection everywhere else.

Some state officials have complained that uncontrolled growth of wolves threatens ranching, hunting and other animal populations. In March, 72 members of Congress sent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a letter requesting the end of endangered species protections for the wolf.

“Our analysis suggests the gray wolf no longer faces the threat of extinction and no longer requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” Dan Ashe, the wildlife agency’s director, said during a telephone news conference.

At the same time, Ashe’s agency proposed giving Mexican wolves protection as a distinct sub-species. Despite efforts to revive that population, there are only 75 Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico to date.

Publication of the new rule in the Federal Register will trigger a 90-day comment period. If the rule goes into effect, the wolves would be subject to the management policies of individual states.

Some conservation groups criticized the proposal, saying the gray wolf has only begun to re-establish itself outside the northern Rockies and western Great Lakes.

“There’s a significant amount of available habitat for these wolves to occupy, and with this rule, it’s almost certain they will never get to occupy it,” said Sylvia Fallon, director of the wildlife conservation project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “What is ‘recovery’ for an endangered species if it now occupies less than 10 percent of its historic range?”

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release that “this is like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life support. Wolves cling to a sliver of their historic habitat in the lower 48, and now the Obama administration wants to arbitrarily declare victory and move on.”

Gray wolves were wiped out of the western United States by the 1930s and the western Great Lakes by the middle of the century, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The animal received endangered species protection in 1973, and in 1995, the Fish and Wildlife Service launched a program to introduce 66 wolves from southwestern Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Ashe called the effort “one of the most remarkable successes in the history of wildlife conservation.” Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a written statement that the new rule would untangle “the ridiculous situation in Washington, Oregon and Utah, where wolves had been listed on one side of a highway and not on the other. Private landowners, local governments and states should not be subjected to federal wolf listings when wolf populations are thriving.”

Last month, 16 scientists who conducted much of the research used by the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to Ashe, claiming that “we do not believe the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves.”