A female Mexican gray wolf at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

A federal appeals court ruling stripped wolves of their protections in Wyoming on Friday, which could allow them to be shot on sight.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided in favor of Wyoming’s wolf management plan, which treats the animals as vermin. The court’s decision overturned a lower-court ruling that sided with conservationists who fought a state law that allowed the unlimited slaughter of wolves in a “predator zone that extended through most of the state,” the environmental groups said.

The court stayed its decision pending an appeal.

“Wyoming’s plan to shoot wolves on sight throughout most of the state was a bad idea when it was proposed, and it’s a bad idea now,” said Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that fought the plan. “The court’s decision to lift federal protections for wolves in Wyoming will be a step backward for wolf recovery in the West.”

Wolves were hunted to near extinction in the lower 48 states. Following a slight recovery after federal protections were granted in 1978, they exist on only 10 percent of their historic range. Many of the wolves that could lose their protection live outside the borders of Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is prohibited and where the wolves have been reintroduced.

Environmental groups earlier convinced a lower court that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration should not have moved to remove endangered-species protection for wolves based on promises from Wyoming that it would not harm them in certain areas.

The appeals court essentially ruled that the federal agency had reason to trust Wyoming’s word.

Wyoming’s “promises to protect wolves don’t amount to much” in a state that allows aggressive hunting, said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. Wolves trying to make it to the southern Rocky Mountains to mate or establish territory “have to make it through the shoot-on-sight zone,” a deadly journey that could once again lower their population, he said.