Federal officials offered a staunch defense Monday of their proposal to drop legal protections for the gray wolf in most of the country, as opponents rallied in the nation's capital before the first in a series of public hearings on the plan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for removing the wolf from the endangered species list for the lower 48 states in June, except for a subspecies called the Mexican wolf in the Southwest, which is struggling to survive. Ranching and hunting groups have praised the proposal, while environmentalists have said it is premature.
A final decision will be made within a year, following a scientific analysis of the agency's proposal and three public hearings, the first of which was being held Monday in Washington. The others are scheduled for Wednesday in Sacramento, Calif., and Friday in Albuquerque, N.M., although officials said they will be postponed if the government partially shuts down because of the fight in Congress over the health care overhaul.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe acknowledged the fierce opposition to the wolf plan from many advocacy groups, scientists and members of Congress. They say the predator remains in a tenuous position despite bouncing back from the last century, when trapping, shooting and poisoning encouraged by federal bounties left just a few hundred survivors in Minnesota by the time they were placed on the protected list in 1974.
"There's certainly no more polarizing issue than wolves," Ashe said.
But he said the agency's mission is not to restore an endangered species in every place it once lived. Rather, it is to ensure that a species is established and thriving in enough places that it won't die out.
"Recovery of the wolf is one of the greatest conservation success stories in the history of our nation ... a poster child of what we can achieve through the protections of the Endangered Species Act even for our most imperiled species," Ashe said.
More than 5,000 gray wolves roam the land, primarily in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and the northern Rockies states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Minnesota officials said in July their population has dropped in the past five years by more than 700 animals — to about 2,200 — with the resumption of hunting and a decline in deer on which they prey.
Wolves also have spread to the Pacific Northwest. In Washington state, the population is estimated to be 50 to 100 wolves.
"We continue to believe that wolves are healthy, well distributed, genetically connected and continuing to prosper," Ashe said.
Brett Hartl, of the Center for Biological Diversity, was among the proposal's critics who planned to testify at the Washington hearing.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is walking away from recovery even though wolves occupy just a fraction of their former range and face continued persecution," Hartl said. "Large swaths of the American landscape would benefit from the presence of these top carnivores."
In a study published this month, the Klamath Center for Conservation Research said the wolves' chances in the West may depend on whether they can stake out new territory, instead of being bottled up in a few areas.
Ashe said the wolf still could return to states such as Colorado, Utah and Nevada, but that protecting them would be up to state governments.
By dropping the species from the endangered list in most places, the Fish and Wildlife Service could devote more time and resources to the Mexican wolf, he said. While the wolf has enjoyed a "miraculous" jump in public acceptance elsewhere, strong resistance persists in Arizona and New Mexico, where only about 75 Mexican wolves remain. The agency wants to substantially widen the area where they would be released and given legal protection.
Ashe also said the agency is renewing the independent analysis of its plan that was put on hold in August amid criticism of the way members of the review panel were being selected. A contractor hired by the agency notified three scientists who were under consideration that they couldn't serve. They had signed a letter in May that challenged a draft of the gray wolf plan.
A different organization, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, will select the scientists for the peer review.
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