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MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Thousands of gray wolves in the Midwest will soon be stripped of federal safeguards under the Endangered Species Act, the government said on Wednesday, in a move that could open the animals to state-licensed hunting.
An estimated 4,000 wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and parts of adjacent states are due to lose their status as either endangered or threatened species on January 27, 2012 under the newly issued U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule.
Some environmental groups criticized the action as likely to jeopardize the wolf's recovery, but federal wildlife managers said the animal's population had grown robust enough to hand control of the iconic predator back to the states.
A review of the Great Lakes wolf population found the species has exceeded its recovery goals in recent years, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.
The agency estimates there are now 2,921 wolves in Minnesota, 687 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and 782 in Wisconsin.
The announcement comes nearly eight months after a separate population of some 1,200 wolves in Montana and Idaho were removed from the endangered species list through an unprecedented act of Congress.
That action marked the first time a specific creature was delisted by legislation rather than through a process of scientific review laid out under the Endangered Species Act. It also applied to several dozen wolves in Oregon, Utah and Washington state.
The government has proposed lifting protections for another 350 wolves in Wyoming.
Wolves were once hunted, trapped and poisoned to the edge of extinction nationwide. But their recovery in the Midwest and Northern Rockies has brought them into renewed conflict with ranchers, farmers and sportsmen who see the wolf as a threat to livestock and big-game animals, such as elk and deer.
Environmentalists say wolf impact on cattle herds and wildlife has been overstated. They fear removal of Endangered Species Act protections could ultimately push the wolf back to the brink.
"We're very disappointed. We think this decision is a mistake," said Howard Goldman, the Minnesota state director for the Humane Society.
"This may have a devastating impact on the wolf population. We don't see any basis for a public hunt, recreational killing of wolves for sport."
The Fish and Wildlife Service briefly de-listed the wolf in the Great Lakes region twice before, in 2007 and 2009, but both those moves were rolled back under court challenge from the Humane Society and other groups.
Goldman said the Humane Society would consider going back to court after reading the full decision, slated to be formally published on December 28.
Once the Midwestern wolves are delisted, individual states will assume regulation of them. Wolf management plans adopted by each state have set minimum population targets at about half of the current numbers and may pave the way for public hunting of the animals in the future.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources plans to permit private trapping of wolves by landowners in affected areas, and shooting of wolves on their property when they are found to be preying on or menacing livestock.
Governor Scott Walker has directed his Natural Resources Department to be ready to implement Wisconsin's wolf management plan by February 1, said agency head Cathy Stepp.
The gray wolf originally was classified as an endangered species across the lower 48 states and Mexico, except in Minnesota, where the animal was listed as threatened.
An estimated 7,000 to 11,000 wolves roam much of Alaska but are so abundant they have never been federally protected.
Additional reporting by Mary Slosson and Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton