Oct. 29 (UPI) -- The U.S Department of the Interior announced Thursday it was lifting endangered species protections for gray wolves in the United States, saying the 45-year recovery of U.S. wolves has "exceeded all conservation goals."
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt compared the success of wolves protected in regions of the country under Endangered Species Act to that of the bald eagle.
"Today's action reflects the Trump Administration's continued commitment to species conservation," said Bernhardt in a statement. "After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery. Today's announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law."
The de-listing means that the management of wolves will be determined by state and tribe wildlife agencies in more states than they currently are, including in the Midwest in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, as well as in Colorado, Utah and California.
Environmentalists opposed the plan.
"This attempt to return vulnerable wolf populations to state control is the latest chapter in a years-long quest to scapegoat a vital keystone species, despite the courts repeatedly finding a lack of scientific or legal basis for delisting," said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute in a statement.
State management plans regulate the hunting of wolves by hunters and ranchers and vary in methods of hunting allowed, including killing wolves from winged aircraft. Some states, such as Wyoming and Idaho have high limits on the number of wolves that can be killed. Gray wolves are still protected by state laws in Colorado and California.
About 6,000 wolves now roam in the northern parts of the United States. Wolves were almost hunted to extinction by 1973, when the species was down to around 145 animals and gray wolves were first put under federal protections.
About 70 wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and on tribal land in Idaho. The animals have since made a comeback over 25 years, spreading to eastern Oregon, Washington and Montana, as well as into Wyoming and Utah.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has attempted multiple times to de-list gray wolves from the lower 48 states, but has been stopped by lawsuits.
In Colorado, where a referendum initiative to restore gray wolves to the state's western slope is on Tuesday's ballot, wolf advocates said stripping wolves of federal protections would make reintroduction harder, even though gray wolves are still protected under Colorado law.
"In Colorado, the wolf has been functionally extinct for nearly 80 years and remains so today," said Rob Edward of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund. "More than ever, we need wolves to restore the balance in our mountain ecosystems. We need to reintroduce wolves to improve the health of our elk and deer herds, which are suffering from a high prevalence of the always-fatal chronic wasting disease."
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday's announcement was "yet another example of the Trump administration undermining longstanding, bedrock protections for our air, water, landscapes and wildlife."
About 150 Mexican red wolves and Mexican gray wolves remain in the United States. Those species remain listed as endangered under federal protection.