Federal officials said Friday they would try again to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region, where they are thriving after being threatened with extinction decades ago.
Courts have overruled several attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to drop wolves from the endangered list, siding with environmentalists whose lawsuits contended the predator's status remains shaky even though about 4,200 wander forests and fields of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Agency officials said their new proposal addresses concerns raised by federal judges and should survive legal challenges. They will take public comment for 60 days before making a final decision.
"Wolves in the western Great Lakes have achieved recovery," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Its action came one day after Congress voted to strip wolves of federal protection in five Northern Rockies states: Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah _ the first time lawmakers have exempted a particular species from coverage under the 1974 law. In both regions, officials report a rising tide of frustration as packs attack livestock, hunting dogs and big game while their endangered status prohibits even wildlife managers from killing them.
If removed from the federal list, wolves would be overseen by state natural resources agencies. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have plans meant to keep the populations at healthy levels while allowing government agents to kill animals that can't be driven away. None would allow hunting or trapping for at least five years as now written, although the states could revise them.
"We've gone too long without that ability to manage some of these problem wolves and curtail the populations in certain areas," said Brian Roell, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife specialist. "It erodes the public support that wolves do have. In some areas it's gone close to zero."
In Michigan's far north, where the latest count totaled 557, people are taking matters into their own hands, Roell said. Ten illegally killed wolves have been found in the Upper Peninsula this year.
The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations whose lawsuits have preserved the wolves' legal shield, said removing it could unravel progress toward restoring them. Thanks in part to government bounties, they had mostly disappeared from Michigan and Wisconsin and plummeted in Minnesota before protection took effect.
Despite their rapid growth, Great Lakes wolves remain vulnerable to diseases such as parvovirus and mange as well as human attacks, said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney and biologist with the center. She noted that Wisconsin's management plan calls for a population of 350 wolves, only half the current total.
"We still might get back to a situation where they are really struggling to survive," Adkins Giese said, adding that her group would study the Fish and Wildlife Service's plan before deciding whether to fight it in court.
Rebecca Schroeder, conservation chief in Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, said the goal of 350 was set in 1999, when biologists thought the population would level off as suitable habitat became saturated.
"Wolves have proven to be more adaptable than we thought and are using areas we didn't expect them to use," Schroeder said. Even so, the plan doesn't require pushing the number down to 350, she said.
The federal agency's new proposal is the fourth in eight years to change the wolf's legal status in the region. A federal judge overturned the most recent attempt in 2009, questioning whether it was legal to designate Great Lakes wolves as a distinct segment of the species while also dropping them from the protected list.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's new proposal includes a defense of the procedure that the agency believes courts will accept, spokeswoman Georgia Parham said.
For the first time, the proposal recognizes the existence of two species of wolves in the region: the gray wolf, the type listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the eastern wolf, which historically ranged in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. The proposal to remove federal protections applies to both.
Scientists have long debated whether the Great Lakes population included one or two species. Genetic analysis has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude there are two, said wildlife biologist Laura Ragan of the Minneapolis office. Some individuals are hybrids.
The agency plans to study the status of the eastern wolf throughout its historical range, including the northeastern U.S. _ where none are known to live at present _ and Canada, where they do exist, Ragan said.
Adkins Giese said the discovery of separate species underscores the importance of retaining legal protection. Any effort to significantly reduce numbers could endanger one or the other, especially as some are interbreeding, she said.
"Wolf conservation in the Great Lakes region is far more complex than previously understood," she said.