SALMON, Idaho For the first time in decades, wolves in Wyoming would be stripped of Endangered Species Act protections and could be hunted under a deal struck on Wednesday between the state and the federal government.
The deal comes after years of legal battles among the state, the federal government and conservation groups over how many wolves Wyoming would be required to maintain to ensure the recovery of an animal once driven nearly to extinction by hunting, trapping and poisoning campaigns.
Fewer than 100 wolves were reintroduced in the region in the mid-1990s over opposition by ranchers and hunters worried they would decimate livestock and big-game animals like elk.
Under the agreement, Wyoming would maintain at least 100 wolves -- from 343 statewide -- in addition to packs in Yellowstone National Park.
The state would also expand an area near the park where wolves could not be killed except during established hunting seasons.
In exchange, the federal government would remove wolves in Wyoming from the threatened and endangered species list and give the state the authority to manage the animals as long as their numbers statewide -- including the portion of Yellowstone in Wyoming -- stayed at 150 or more.
It would still be legal to kill wolves in most of Wyoming.
The plan must still clear several hurdles, including approval by Wyoming's legislature, before becoming law. State and federal officials said they look for wolves to be delisted and subject to hunting as early as next fall.
"This is far from the end of this process, but I think we have come up with something that fits with Wyoming's values and economy," Governor Matt Mead said in a statement.
Environmentalists claimed the agreement was born of politics instead of science.
"It's a laughable proposal," said Doug Honnold, managing attorney for the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice. "This adds a few acres to an area where wolves are protected for part of the year and leaves them open to killing year-round in nearly 90 percent of the state."
The deal comes just months after an estimated 1,000 wolves in Idaho and 566 in Montana were delisted in an unprecedented act of Congress. The provision banned legal intervention, a protection that Mead said he is seeking through the state's congressional delegation.
The push to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies has gathered strength as wolf numbers have climbed from 66 to an estimated 1,900.
Wyoming, like Idaho, has blamed wolves for denting elk populations that commercial hunting businesses rely on, and for preying on livestock.
Wolves in Wyoming killed about 26 cows last year from 1.3 million head statewide, federal and state records show. Data showing wolf impacts on wildlife were not immediately available from the Wyoming state government.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)