By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Minnesota officials on Thursday outlined plans to permit a hunting season for the gray wolf this year following its removal from federal endangered species protections, prompting opponents of the plan to consider a court challenge.
Minnesota is home to the largest population of gray wolves in the lower 48 states, about 2,900, and could become the first upper Midwest state to set a hunting season for the animals as they are stripped of federal protections.
Federal officials have withdrawn safeguards under the Endangered Species Act effective Friday, allowing states to decide whether or not to allow the gray wolf to be hunted.
There are about 4,000 gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and adjacent states losing protections. Hunting seasons have not yet been proposed in Wisconsin or Michigan.
Federal court challenges brought by the Humane Society and other groups overturned de-listing bids by the fish and wildlife service in 2007 and 2009.
The Humane Society opposed the latest de-listing, opposes the hunting season and is considering another court challenge, Howard Goldman, the Minnesota state director of the Humane Society, said Thursday in a telephone interview.
"We are looking at the legal side and the biology," Goldman said. "We don't believe the wolf has recovered nationally. It only occupies 5 percent of its historic range."
Wolves were hunted to the edge of extinction nationwide, but populations have recovered to the point of conflict between ranchers, farmers and hunters who see them as a threat to livestock and big-game animals such as deer.
A separate population of about 1,200 wolves in Montana and Idaho were removed from the endangered species list last year under an unprecedented act of Congress.
There were fewer than 750 gray wolves in Minnesota in the 1950s. The population had grown to about 2,900 by the late 1990s, a level that has not changed significantly since, according to state natural resources department estimates.
Minnesota state officials plan to allow 400 gray wolves to be killed in a hunting season in late November and believe the population could sustain a higher quota. They discussed the plans with state lawmakers in committee hearings on Thursday.
(Reporting By David Bailey)