Corrected:Conservationists seek to expand wolf range across U.S.

(corrects reference to court ruling in 14th paragraph)

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A wildlife conservation group on Tuesday put the government on notice that it would sue to restore wolves across the United States, far beyond a range now limited mostly to Alaska, the Rockies and the Great Lakes.

The move by the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona, marks the latest twist in a long and heated battle over federal protections for wolf populations first established in 1978.

That fight has centered recently in the Northern Rocky Mountains, where wolves have recovered so well that Montana, Idaho and Wyoming want the Obama administration to remove them from the Endangered Species List.

Rather than remove protections, or focus on protecting them only in certain regions, the Center said it was long overdue for the federal government to develop a national plan.

“Wolves are an integral part of this country’s natural history and need a national recovery plan now,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species program director.

He said federal recovery efforts for wolves under the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have focused on just 5 percent of wolves’ historic range in the continental United States.

With suitable habitat still available in mountains, forests and other back-country areas across the country, recovery plans should be put in place from coast to coast, including California, the Great Plains and New England, Greenwald said.

The group filed a formal notice of intent to sue with the Interior Department on Tuesday seeking a nationwide recovery plan. Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff declined comment.

Once abundant across most of North America, wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in much of the continental United States by the 1930s under a government-sponsored eradication program. Decades later, biologists recognized wolves had an essential role to play in ecosystems as a predator.

While Endangered Species Act Protection was extended to wolves in the 1970s, recovery efforts have centered on the Rockies, the Great Lakes and the Southwest.

Reestablishment of wolf packs has been especially controversial in the Rockies, where ranchers and hunters -- both powerful political forces in the West -- say wolves are preying on livestock and big game animals.

“We have gone to a lot of effort and cost to try to recover the wolf population and at this point, we’ve gotten zero in return,” said Carl Ellsworth, past president of the Idaho Cattle Association.

Federal government officials have been in talks with Idaho, Montana and Wyoming about plans for lifting protections for the estimated 1,700 wolves in those states.

A federal judge in August reversed a 2009 Interior Department decision that had removed wolves from the Endangered Species List in Idaho and Montana while leaving them listed in Wyoming. That ruling restored federal wolf safeguards for the three-state region as a whole.

Federal court rulings also have prevented delisting of wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where an estimated 4,200 of the animals roam.

Angered by the court rulings, some members of Congress from the West have proposed laws to hand authority over the wolves to the states.

For example, Idaho has asked federal permission to kill off 80 percent of wolves in one area and cut their numbers in half in another because of declines in elk herds.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune