By Laura Zuckerman
JACKSON, Wyoming (Reuters) - Gray wolves in Wyoming, the last still federally protected in the northern Rockies, will lose endangered species status at the end of next month, opening them to unregulated killing in most of the state, the U.S. government said on Friday.
The planned delisting of Wyoming's estimated 350 wolves caps a steady progression of diminishing federal safeguards for a predator once hunted, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction throughout most of the continental United States.
Wyoming will officially regain control over the management of its wolf population on September 30, joining Montana and Idaho, where more than 1,500 wolves were removed from the federal endangered list in May of 2011.
About 4,000 wolves in the northern Great Lakes region -- primarily Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota -- lost their status as endangered or threatened last January.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe on Friday hailed delisting of the last wolf population in the northern Rockies as a victory assured by the Endangered Species Act and cooperation among state and federal partners.
"The return of the wolf to the Northern Rocky Mountains is a major success story," he said in a statement.
Conservationists decried the move, questioning how an animal could be protected until September 30 only to be subject to "open fire" on October 1, the first day of Wyoming's regulated hunting season. Environmental groups say they fear ending federal safeguards could push wolves back to the brink.
Like Idaho and Montana, Wyoming is required to maintain a statewide population of at least 150 wolves, including 15 breeding pairs, to prevent a relisting.
Wyoming wolves will remain off-limits to hunters inside national wildlife refuges and national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
FROM PROTECTION TO BULL'S EYE
But restricted hunting will be permitted from October through December within zones just outside those parks and refuges in the greater Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming, where most of the state's wolves reside.
For the rest of the state, wolves would be classified as predatory animals, subjecting them to unlicensed, unregulated killing year-round through methods such as shooting, trapping and pursuit on mechanized vehicles.
Wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockies in the mid-1990s, but their return triggered an emotional debate that pitted livestock producers and hunters against conservationists.
Ranchers and hunting groups have argued that wolves prey on livestock and big-game animals targeted by sportsmen. Environmentalists contend the predators play a key role in restoring an ecosystem impaired by overgrazing and erosion caused in part by wildlife such as elk and mule deer.
Under Endangered Species Act protections, wolf numbers rebounded in the northern Rockies, far exceeding the original recovery goals set by the federal government.
Efforts in recent years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove wolves in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list were reversed by court rulings.
But Idaho and Montana wolves ultimately were delisted last year through an unprecedented act of Congress, and those states have since sought to reduce wolf numbers -- mostly through hunting and trapping -- to as few as 300 from as many as 1,500.
Wyoming's wolves had remained protected while state and federal officials negotiated what safeguards would sustain a viable population under Wyoming management.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's latest estimate puts current numbers in all three states at more than 1,774 adult wolves.
The gray wolf originally was classified as an endangered species across the lower 48 states and Mexico, except in Minnesota, where the animal was listed as threatened.
An estimated 7,000 to 11,000 wolves roam much of Alaska, but are so abundant they have never been federally protected.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)