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Washington advocates disappointed with end to gray wolf protections

Gray wolves have recovered from near extinction in parts of the U.S. but remain absent from much of their historical range. Environmental groups condemned the move.

The Trump administration has removed gray wolves in most of the U.S. from the endangered species list. 

Thursday’s action ends longstanding federal safeguards for the predators in the Lower 48 states, except for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest.

The announcement just days ahead of the election could allow hunting of the animals to resume in Great Lakes states -- a battleground region in the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Gray wolves have recovered from near extinction in parts of the country but remain absent from much of their historical range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now estimates there are about 6000 nationwide.

In Washington, gray wolves were nearly eradicated, but have begun to return, according to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Washington's first pack of wolf packs was confirmed in 2008, and the department says the population has increased by an average of 28% annually since then.

Wolves returned to Washington from neighboring states and British Columbia, and were not reintroduced by humans.

Biologists who reviewed the administration’s plan to strip protection from wolves say it lacked scientific justification. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called the move "dangerously short-sighted."

"We should be putting more effort into coexistence with wolves, working to ensure their survival and balance our natural systems instead of stripping critical protections still needed for their full recovery," Brune said in a statement. "The science is clear that to protect our communities and prevent future pandemics, we need to be doing more to protect nature and wildlife, not less."

Wolves are a controversial subject in many Midwest and Western states. Conservationists champion their protection and recovery, pointing to their historic place in the ecosystem, and beneficial impacts. Ranchers and hunting interests often oppose protections and recovery, citing cattle impacts, a desire to hunt wolves, or their impacts on game.

Some groups, including the Washington State Hunter's Heritage Council, celebrated the decision. 

"Federal delisting of wolves is heaven sent for Washington state," said Mark Pidgeon, president of the Hunter's Heritage Council in a statement orovided through the Dept. of Interior. "With a rapidly expanding wolf population, and two-thirds of the state of Washington being federally protected, moose and elk herds are in serious decline. Washington sportsmen strongly support the return of state management authority over wolves."

Other groups celebrated the decision, including the Washington Farm Bureau, and Washington Cattlemen's Association.

But don't expect immediate changes in Washington. Wolves are still listed as endangered in the state, though the state protections differ from federal.

"The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will continue to work closely with partners, stakeholders, and communities, just as we have over the past decade, on the recovery, conservation, and management of wolves in Washington, with a focus on achieving the state’s recovery objectives and reducing conflict between wolves and livestock," WDFW said in an update posted online.

"Gov. Inslee does not support a nationwide proposal that delists gray wolves from the federal endangered species list in all of the lower 48 states because there are many areas where wolves have not yet been recovered," his office said in a statement to KING 5. "The governor opposes nationwide delisting but supports a scientific approach that allows delisting only in areas where wolves have been recovered and a science-based management plan is in place."

Even so, wolf advocates are sounding the alarm. The Center for Biological Diversity has said it will sue to stop the USFWS move.

"The decision to federally strip wolves of protections is nothing but a political decision that is designed to appease a certain portion of the American population that doesn't like wolves and is unwilling to coexist with them," said Amaroq Weiss, who handles wolf issues in California, Oregon and Washington for the Center for Biological Diversity

In Washington state, the last count puts about 145 wolves across 26 packs, with the vast majority (21) in the eastern third of the state, according to WDFW. Those eastern Washington wolves were federally delisted in 2011, and WDFW has killed 34 wolves over the last 13 years for issues like interfering with livestock.

But it's a practice some continue to criticize. As recently as August, state officials killed the last two members of the Wedge pack.

A recreational hunt would still be forbidden at this time though, WDFW said.

"What we see in eastern Washington tells us that that's not a good way to deal with conflicts and no way to get people to coexists with wolves," said Weiss. "You cannot shoot your way out of this problem."

She worries that while wolves have rebounded, their populations are still too fragmented and genetically similar to warrant dropping protections. And though the Trump administration championed the decision as a move for state's rights and management, she worried varying policies between states could hurt the trajectory of further recovery.

The delisting will be added to the Federal Register Nov. 3 - election day - and take effect 60 days later. U.S. Fish and Wildlife said it will monitor wolves for fives years.