By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government said Friday that gray wolves have returned from the brink of extinction after decades of recovery efforts and proposed ending nationwide protection of them under the Endangered Species Act, a move some conservation groups called dangerously premature.
Under the plan, federal protection for gray wolves throughout the contiguous 48 states would end in 2014, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews comments from the public and other interested parties.
After that, state wildlife officials would take over management of the species, the agency said in a statement.
The Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that gray wolves have not returned to all parts of their historic range, which includes nearly every corner of the continental United States.
As their numbers grew, the animal was de-listed in the western Great Lakes region in 2011 and in the northern Rocky Mountains in 2012. Information on gray wolves' current status is at http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A00D#status.
"Is the species still threatened with extinction? From our perspective, clearly the answer is no," said Chris Tollefson, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. "There is suitable habitat out there."
If states want to re-introduce gray wolves into their territory by trapping them elsewhere and then releasing them in their state after the de-listing, they can do this, Tollefson said by telephone. He said Kentucky had successfully used this method to re-introduce elk in that state.
Tollefson acknowledged that it would be difficult to build up gray wolf populations by natural migration.
Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council said it would be nearly impossible for a wolf to naturally go from Montana, where federal protections have already been lifted, to Colorado, because it would have to travel through Wyoming, which allows shooting wolves on first sight.
ARE GRAY WOLVES STILL ON "LIFE-SUPPORT"?
In the western Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountains and other regions, the gray wolf has rebounded to now exceed population targets by as much as 300 percent, prompting the possibility they could be hunted.
Asked about some states' decision to institute hunting and trapping of gray wolves after regional de-listing, Tollefson said there was no evidence that trophy hunting programs have a significant impact on those wolf populations.
Montana, with an estimated wolf population of 625, is taking public comments on a plan to expand its hunt.
Gray wolves have been federally protected in some fashion since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, Tollefson said.
"We've got hundreds of other species that are facing significant threats," Tollefson said. "We don't have the luxury to devote to species that aren't threatened with extinction."
But the decision to end protection for gray wolves drew howls of protest from environmental groups.
"This would effectively slam the door on wolf recovery nationwide," Sylvia Fallon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said online. "We urge the agency to take a hard look at the science and reconsider."
The Sierra Club's Michael Brune said there has been a "brutal assault" on gray wolves in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho since the species was removed from the endangered species list there.
Separately, federal authorities proposed continuing protection and expanding recovery efforts for the Mexican wolf in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, where it is still endangered.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko, editing by Ros Krasny and Philip Barbara)