WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2013 (ENS) – The public comment period closed today on a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for all gray wolves across the country. Close to one million Americans stated their opposition to the plan – the largest number of comments ever submitted on a federal decision involving endangered species.

Also today, conservation groups challenged as “premature” the Service’s removal of federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Wyoming. Arguments were heard at the U.S. District Court in Washington this morning.

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Wolf pair (Photo by Steve Jurvetson / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The court’s decision will determine whether Endangered Species Act protections will be restored to gray wolves in Wyoming unless and until state officials develop a stronger wolf conservation plan.

The delisting of wolves in Wyoming turned wolf management over to the state, which the plaintiff groups say is “promoting unlimited wolf killing across more than 80 percent of Wyoming and providing inadequate protections for wolves in the remainder.” Since the delisting last year, 119 wolves have been killed in Wyoming.

Twelve small areas of Wyoming are designated as wolf hunt areas where wolves are classified as trophy game animals, quotas are set, and hunters who kill wolves must present the skulls and skins to state wildlife officials.

In all other areas of the state wolves are designated as predatory animals. There, no license is required to kill a wolf, and there are no closed seasons or bag limits. Anyone who takes a wolf in these areas must report the kill to a state wildlife official within 10 days. Presenting the skull and pelt is not required.

The conservationists claim that Wyoming “has a history of hostile and extreme anti-wolf laws and policies, which in the past caused the Fish and Wildlife Service to deny Wyoming the authority to manage wolves in the state.” But the Service reversed that position in 2012 and delisted wolves in Wyoming after state officials made what conservationists describe as “cosmetic” changes to the Wyoming wolf management laws.

“The extreme hostility toward wolves demonstrated by some who participated in this fall’s Wyoming wolf hunt shows why adequate legal protections are especially important for wolves in Wyoming,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who argued the case on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The questions asked by Judge Jackson at today’s hearing got to the heart of the issue,” said Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot ensure sustainable populations of wolves in Wyoming when the state’s laws allow so much unregulated wolf killing.”

“If allowed to stand, Wyoming’s current wolf management plan will set wolf recovery back decades, and potentially take wolves back to the brink of extinction,” said Bonnie Rice of Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.

“Wolves in Wyoming must have federal protection until the state develops a management plan that treats wolves as valued native wildlife, not vermin that can be killed by any means without a license in over 80 percent of the state,” said Rice.

But the Wyoming delisting is just one state’s experience. The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves across the country.

“Americans overwhelmingly oppose removing protections for wolves, and for good reason. Wolves have recovered to just a fraction of their range and are severely threatened by state-sanctioned hunts intended to decimate them,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the Obama administration will hear the pleas of hundreds of thousands of citizens and maintain these critically needed protections for wolves.”

The 750,000-plus comments delivered today to the Fish and Wildlife Service by many conservation groups will bring the total number of opposing comments to well over one million.

The wolf conservationists followed delivery of the comments with a candlelight vigil with music and costumes in Triangle Park across from the C Street entrance of the Department of the Interior headquarters.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe defends the agency’s decision to remove federal protections for wolves.

“From the moment a species requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act, our goal is to work with our partners to address the threats it faces and ensure its recovery,” said Ashe, announcing the proposal in June.

“An exhaustive review of the latest scientific and taxonomic information shows that we have accomplished that goal with the gray wolf, allowing us to focus our work under the Endangered Species Act on recovery of the Mexican wolf subspecies in the Southwest,” Ashe said.

The Service’s proposes to remove existing protections for wolves everywhere except Arizona and New Mexico, where the Mexican wolf is clinging to survival with an estimated population of 75 wolves.

There were once up to two million gray wolves living in North America, but the animals were driven to near-extinction in the lower 48 states by the early 1900s.

After passage of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973 and protection of the wolf as endangered, federal recovery programs resulted in the rebound of wolf populations in some parts of the country.

Roughly 5,500 wolves now live in the continental United States.

After its most recent population assessment, the Service said, “In the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains, the gray wolf has rebounded from the brink of extinction to exceed population targets by as much as 300 percent. Gray wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct and Western Great Lakes Population Segments were removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2011 and 2012.”

Conservationists argue that the delisting would remove protections for wolves in places where wolf recovery is just beginning, such as Oregon and Washington, and would prevent wolves from recovering in other places where good wolf habitat has been identified, such as northern California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast.

“Oregon wolves have taken the first tentative steps toward recovery in the last few years,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild. “If the Obama administration takes away the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act, we pull the rug out from the fragile success story here on the West Coast and leave the fate of wolves in the hands of state agencies in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming who have proven incapable of balanced management.”

But Roy Elicker, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said when the proposal surfaced in June, “With a solid state conservation and management plan in place for the Northern gray wolf, an experienced wildlife management agency that is committed to wolf recovery, and established populations recovering at an increasing rate, Oregon is ready to take on further responsibility for wolf management in this state.”

“The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is firmly committed to the long-term persistence of wolves in Washington,” said Miranda Wecker, who chairs the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. She says the state should be responsible for wolf management and supports the delisting proposal.

But Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said today, “The incredible volume of comments give voice to a sad fact – the delisting proposal is a radical departure from the optimism and courage we need to promote endangered species recovery in this country. The comments show that Americans believe the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal falls well short of the conservation ideals this country stood for 40 years ago when the Endangered Species Act was signed.”

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