SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Federal protections for some 1,200 gray wolves in Montana and Idaho officially end on Thursday under unprecedented legislation passed by Congress last month removing them from the endangered species list.
The effective date of the de-listing, which places the wolves under state wildlife control and opens them to licensed hunting, was announced on Wednesday by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a conference call with reporters.
Another 4,000 wolves in the western Great Lakes region could lose their status as threatened or endangered in the future under a separate government proposal issued last month.
Wolves were once hunted, trapped and poisoned to the edge of extinction. But their recovery in the Midwest and Northern Rockies has brought them into conflict with ranchers, farmers and sportsmen who see the animal as a growing threat to livestock and big-game animals, such as elk and deer.
Environmentalists say the impact of wolves on cattle herds and wildlife is overstated, and they fear removal of federal safeguards could push the wolf back to the brink.
The gray wolf of the Rockies was designated for de-listing in legislation signed into law in April, becoming the first creature ever taken off the endangered list by an act of Congress rather than through a process of scientific review.
The legislative de-listing also applies to about three dozen wolves in Oregon, Utah and Washington state. Another 300 wolves in Wyoming will remain protected for the time being.
Salazar called the recovery of gray wolves in the United States “a tremendous success story of the Endangered Species Act,” even as he lamented delays in de-listing because of years-long legal challenges by conservation groups.
“Delisting got stuck in unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute,” he said.
On Thursday, the states of Idaho and Montana will assume management of their wolves, estimated to number 700 and 550, respectively.
Plans already are under way to kill scores of them in areas where wildlife managers say elk herds have been decimated since wolves were reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s.
Previous Interior Department efforts to remove federal protections for wolves in the Rockies were blocked through legal challenges mounted by environmental groups. The newly passed legislation bars judicial review of the de-listing.
Once the Idaho and Montana wolves lose their endangered status, each state will be obligated to maintain a minimum population of 150 wolves to prevent new federal intervention.
Wildlife managers in the two states plan to set quotas for licensed wolf hunts in the months ahead, based on plans established during the 2009-2010 season when de-listing was briefly in effect before a federal judge struck it down.
Annual wolf “harvest” numbers were set then at 220 in Idaho and 75 in Montana. Wyoming has been excluded from de-listing because its management plan would have allowed wolves to be generally shot on sight.
Officials there are still in talks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a retooled wolf management proposal that is more likely to meet with federal approval.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune