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Feds Plan To Remove Great Lakes Wolf Designation

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Despite being rebuffed three times by federal courts, the U.S. government is trying again to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the endangered species list, officials said Friday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will release a proposal by April for handing management of the region's wolves to state wildlife agencies in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and hopes to make a final decision by the end of 2011, regional spokeswoman Georgia Parham said.

The plan is being designed to withstand legal challenges that have thwarted previous efforts to strip the wolves of protection under the Endangered Species Act. Agency biologists remain convinced the predators have made a solid recovery from near-extinction and can flourish without federal protection, Parham said.

"We're doing our best to develop something that is scientifically sound and legally defensible," she said.

But environmental and human rights groups that sued successfully in the past to retain the wolves' protected status were ready to continue the fight.

"I don't think there's a way to legally delist the wolves at this time," said Collette Adkins Giese, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "There are still threats to wolves and there is too much up in the air with the science."

Gray wolves in the lower 48 states were added to the endangered list in 1974, enabling them to bounce back after the government spent decades using poisons, traps and bullets to wipe them out.

About 4,200 wolves now roam the western Great Lakes region, while at least 1,700 are believed to live in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. New populations are taking hold in Oregon and Washington, while sightings have been reported in Colorado, Utah and New England.

As their numbers have risen, so have complaints from farmers and ranchers about attacks on livestock -- particularly in the Northern Rockies. Some hunters in the Great Lakes say wolves take too many whitetail deer, although biologists say the kill isn't large enough to significantly affect the herd.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has tried three times since 2004 to revoke wolves' endangered status in the Great Lakes region, the latest in April 2009. Groups including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States sued. Months later, the agency withdrew its proposal, acknowledging procedural errors including failure to have a required public comment period.

Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have crafted plans to keep wolf numbers at healthy yet manageable levels, including killing them when necessary to avoid conflicts with people.

But environmentalists say even though wolves have exceeded recovery targets in all three states, they remain highly vulnerable and still occupy just 5 percent of their original range in the continental U.S.

Many wolf pups are dying from canine parvovirus, Adkins Giese said, and studies indicate some adults are breeding with coyotes or Eastern wolves migrating from Canada, raising doubts about how many wolves in official population counts are genuine representatives of the western Great Lakes species.

"Wolves shouldn't be stripped of protection before achieving natural recovery," Adkins Giese said.

But Thomas Strickland, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said this week the agency remains convinced that Great Lakes wolves are no longer endangered.

"The recovery of the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes is a remarkable success story," Strickland wrote in a letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Klobuchar said this month she would introduce legislation "to help speed up" the wolf's removal from the list, saying its spread was "threatening the citizens of my state as well as our livestock and hunting industries."

Adkins Giese said Congress has never exempted individual species from the law's protections.

"To make these decisions on the basis of a political agenda instead of science undercuts the whole basis for the Endangered Species Act," she said.

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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