TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Federal officials are declaring victory in their four-decade campaign to rescue the gray wolf, a predator the government once considered a nuisance and tried to exterminate.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday proposed removing the animal's remaining protections as an endangered species across the Lower 48 states. The exception would be in the Southwest, where the recovery effort for the related Mexican gray wolf is lagging.
Despite criticism from some scientists and members of Congress who consider the move premature, agency director Dan Ashe said the wolf can thrive and even enlarge its territory without continued federal protection.
"Taking this step fulfills the commitment we've made to the American people — to set biologically sound recovery goals and return wolves to state management when those goals have been met and threats to the species' future have been addressed," Ashe said.
The proposal will be subject to a 90-day public comment period and a final decision made within a year.
Wolves once roamed across most of North America. But trapping, poisoning and aerial shooting encouraged by federal bounties left just one small remnant, in northern Minnesota, by the time they were placed on the protected list in 1974.
By then, attitudes had shifted. Wildlife managers acknowledged the role predators play in providing balanced ecosystems, and the then-new Endangered Species Act mandated protections.
More than 6,100 wolves have now spread across portions of 10 states, primarily in the Northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes regions. Most are in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Packs also have formed in portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, Utah, the Dakotas, California and the Northeast.
But they have yet to return to vast additional territory that researchers say has suitable habitat and abundant prey, including parts of the Pacific Northwest, the southern Rocky Mountains, upstate New York and New England.
Environmental groups say wolves could make their way to those places — but only if legal protections remain to prevent them from being shot. Removing them now would put wolves "at serious risk for ever achieving natural recovery," said Diane Bentivegna of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.
Colorado alone has enough space to support up to 1,000 wolves, according to Carlos Carroll of California's Klamath Center for Conservation Research. He suggested wildlife officials were bowing to political pressure, exerted by elected officials across the West who pushed to limit the wolf's range.
"They've tried to devise their political position first, and then cherry-pick their science to support it," Carroll said of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Maggie Howell of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y., said the Adirondack Mountains and other parts of the Northeast are "screaming for a predator like the wolf" to thin an out-of-control deer herd.
Ashe, however, said it's unrealistic to think wolves can return to all or even most of their former range, even if scientifically feasible.
"Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered," he said. "Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no."
The wolf's resurgence has been unpopular among ranchers and others unhappy about attacks on livestock and popular sport animals — even as hunters and trappers in the last several years killed some 1,600 wolves after protections were lifted in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Government wildlife agents responding to livestock attacks have killed thousands more in recent decades.
Removing legal protections could ease the hostility in the West, where many ranchers complained they're helpless to protect their herds from marauding attackers.
Hunting advocates also have complained as elk herds dwindle in some areas.
"We can't just say, let them go and let the predators manage the big game. That's not going to work in this day and age," said David Allen, president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Yet the former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton said the agency's proposal "is a far cry from what we envisioned for gray wolf recovery when we embarked on this almost 20 years ago."
"It's a low bar for endangered species recovery," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, who was with the agency when wolves were reintroduced in Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s. She now heads the group Defenders of Wildlife.
David Mech, a leading wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn., said wolves already occupy about 80 percent of the territory where people are likely to tolerate them.
The Center for Biological Diversity vowed to challenge the government in court if it takes the animals off the endangered list.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has filed a lawsuit challenging the removal of protections from Great Lakes wolves, is reviewing the government's latest proposal, spokesman Kaitlin Sanderson said.
Ashe said the plan had been reviewed by top administration officials, including new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But he dismissed any claims of interference and said the work that went into the plan was exclusively that of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
He said the agency wants to focus future recovery efforts on a small number of wolves belonging to a subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf. Those occur in Arizona and New Mexico, where a protracted and costly reintroduction plan has stumbled in part due to illegal killings.
The agency is calling for a tenfold increase in the territory where biologists are working to rebuild that population, which now numbers 73 animals. Law enforcement efforts to ward off poaching in the region would be bolstered.
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.