Helena, Mont. Once driven to near-extinction in the Lower 48 states, the gray wolf is loping across the Northern Rockies in numbers not seen in a century, and the government is about to declare victory in its $17 million effort to bring the predators back.
Possibly as early as this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will ease the federal protections that allowed the wolves to make a comeback. And as early as next year, all federal protections for wolves could be removed and their management turned over to the states.
Conservationists fear the move will only lead to the wolves' numbers dropping off again.
"There is very little out there to indicate that we're not just headed back to the bad old days of wolf pelts all over people's walls," said Tim Preso of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Bozeman, Mont.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to downgrade the wolf's classification under the Endangered Species Act from "endangered," the highest level of protection, to "threatened." While the animals would still be protected, the reclassification would, among other things, allow ranchers to kill wolves caught attacking their livestock. Currently, they cannot.
The reclassification will apply to all or part of nine Western states -- Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and parts of Arizona and New Mexico.
It will also launch the next phase of the agency's recovery program: delisting, or removing all federal protection. Ed Bangs, who heads the recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service, predicted delisting will come sometime in 2004.
The federal agency, however, would continue monitoring the wolf for at least five years after that and could step in if the animals' numbers dropped dangerously low.