By Nichola Groom
(Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday said it would lift Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf, arguing the species had been brought back successfully from the brink of extinction.
The move gives states in the continuous United States the authority to manage their local wolf populations, including by allowing them to be hunted. It will mainly affect wolf populations in the upper Midwest, Colorado and Pacific Northwest because wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains were previously delisted. Wolves have never been federally protected in Alaska.
Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who traveled to Minnesota to announce the delisting at a wildlife refuge, said the gray wolf had exceeded all conservation goals and no longer met the legal definitions of a threatened or endangered species.
There are about 6,000 gray wolves in the lower 48 United States, up from about 1,000 when they were added to the endangered species list in the 1970s after being hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction.
Delisting the gray wolf is a win for sportsmen and ranchers who argue that larger numbers of wolves have diminished herds of big-game animals like elk and prey on livestock.
"Impacted communities will be able to determine how best to preserve gray wolf populations while protecting other native species and livestock," Utah Senator Mike Lee said in a statement.
Conservation groups said the species has yet to recover in much of their former range, including Northern California and the Northeast, and said the timing of the move appeared to be an effort to win votes for President Donald Trump in Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota days before the Nov. 3 election.
"Wolves will be shot and killed because Donald Trump is desperate to gin up his voters in the Midwest," Brett Hartl, chief political strategist at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)