By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, listed as endangered for more than three decades, no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. government said on Thursday.
Environmental groups disagreed, saying the species has not fully recovered and vowed to sue to continue to protect wolves from hunting and other methods of killing that the groups said would likely follow the government's move.
"The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goal and continues to expand its size and range," Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said in a statement announcing the decision to remove this group of gray wolves from the list of wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Once plentiful across the 48 contiguous U.S. states, gray wolves were eradicated from the northern Rocky Mountain region and southwestern Canada by the 1930s. The species was listed as endangered in 1973; 66 wolves were re-introduced to the area in 1995.
There are now 1,513 wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, including 107 breeding pairs, according to Edward Bangs, western wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wolf population in these states has been growing 24 percent each year since they were re-introduced, Bangs said by telephone.
HUNTING AND TRAPPING
The minimum goal for recovery for gray wolves in the northern Rockies was 30 breeding pairs and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years. This goal was reached in 2002, the Interior Department said.
"Three hundred animals is not enough for the wolves to survive in the long run," said the council's Louisa Willcox. "Far more wolves are needed before the species can be considered truly recovered."
Once federal protections are removed, state management plans will go into effect, the department said in a statement.
The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council called the delisting of these wolves premature and said the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have stated they plan to allow hunting, trapping and other killing of wolves under their state management plans.
In a statement, the group said the recovery goal should be at least 2,500 to 5,000 wolves across the three states.
The Sierra Club's Melanie Stern criticized the government's decision, saying, "We still have a long way to go before wolf populations are sustainable over the long term."
"The bottom line is, wolves are just an amazing animal and there's really, really good habitat," Bangs said. "The big fear is that somehow all the success is just going to be squandered by the states, and we know that's not true."
(Editing by Sandra Maler )