By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The government on Tuesday proposed lifting federal protections from wolves in Wyoming under a state wildlife management plan that allows unregulated killing of the animals in most of the state.
The proposal would require Wyoming to maintain at least 150 wolves statewide, including packs that roam Yellowstone National Park, out of a total statewide population estimated at 350 animals.
If the plan is adopted as expected, Wyoming's wolves would lose safeguards provided by the U.S. Endangered Species Act within a year, joining more than 1,500 wolves in Idaho and Montana that were removed from the endangered list in May.
Wolves would remain off-limits to hunters inside national wildlife refuges and national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. But restricted hunting would be allowed within a zone just outside those parks and refuges in the greater Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming, where most of the state's wolves reside.
But for the rest of the state, wolves would be classified as predatory animals, subjecting them to unlicensed, unregulated killing through methods such as shooting, trapping and pursuit on mechanized vehicles.
Once driven to the brink of extinction by government eradication efforts, wolves have been the subject of bitter debate in the Northern Rockies since they were reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s as a vital but missing part of the ecosystem.
Ranchers and commercial outfitters vehemently objected, saying the animals would prey on livestock and compete with hunters for elk.
As wolf numbers rebounded under Endangered Species Act safeguards, protracted legal battles have ensued among the states, the federal government and wildlife advocates over what constitutes a recovered population of the animals.
Today, the Northern Rockies are home to nearly 2,000 wolves by state estimates, many more than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set as the goal to ensure survival of the species.
Wolves in Idaho and Montana were delisted through an unprecedented act of Congress, giving those states largely unfettered control over the animals. Idaho and Montana have since opened public hunting seasons for wolves, and environmentalists are seeking to restore federal protections.
The federal government and Wyoming on Tuesday presented the state's wolf plan as a triumph forged from years of hard work.
Wyoming's wolves "are ready to stand on their own" under the state's oversight, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. Governor Matt Mead added: "This is an important step for Wyoming."
Conservationists took issue with allowing open season on wolves in at least 80 percent of the state.
"It takes away all the rules of fair chase. This isn't how we manage wildlife in today's society," said Chris Colligan, wildlife advocate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)