Rule Would End Wolf Protections

Montpelier — Wolves that wander into upstate New York or northern New England from Canada or elsewhere would lose federal protection after most of the animal’s species are removed from the federal endangered species list, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed yesterday.

Wolves, which have been persecuted to near-extermination, have rebounded, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

There are no breeding populations of wolves in the Northeast, but there are populations of wolves in Canada not far from the U.S. and wolves from other regions are occasionally found in the region, said Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Specialist Mark McCollough, based in Orono, Maine. Eventually, they will no longer have federal protection, he said.

“They will no longer be protected under the federal act, but the states will be responsible for managing wolves,” he said.

In Vermont and Maine, wolves aren’t given protection beyond the prohibition of hunting or trapping them.

Over the years there have been other occasions when large wolf-like animals have appeared in the region. In some cases, genetic testing has found them to mixes of wolf species and eastern coyote.

This year, a trail camera took a series of photos of a large wolf-like animal in Wilson’s Mills, Maine, not far from the New Hampshire border. In 2012, a wolf was shot in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, not far from Maine, McCollough said.

The Obama administration yesterday proposed lifting most remaining federal protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end four decades of recovery efforts.

State and federal agencies have spent more than $117 million restoring the predators since they were added to the endangered species list in 1974. Today more than 6,100 wolves roam portions of the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes where protections already have been lifted.

With yesterday’s announcement, the administration signaled it is ready to move on: The wolf has rebounded from near-extermination, balance has been restored to parts of the ecosystem, and hunters in some states already are free to shoot the animals under state oversight.

But prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more wolves in more places. They say protections should remain in force so the animals can expand beyond the portions of 10 states they now occupy. Lawsuits challenging the administration’s plan are almost certain.

Despite vast tracts of wilderness that are suitable for wolves in the Northeast, efforts to restore wolves to the region never got off the ground.

McCollough said there are populations of Eastern wolves in Canada within 60 miles of the Maine border, but the St. Lawrence River acts as a barrier, keeping all but a few of the wolves from finding their way south.

The gray wolf’s historical range stretched across most of North America. By the 1930s, government-sponsored trapping and poisoning left just one small pocket of the animals, in northern Minnesota.

In the past several years, after the Great Lakes population swelled and wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, protections were lifted in states where the vast majority of the animals now live: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Under the administration’s plan, protections would remain only for a fledgling population of Mexican gray wolves in the desert Southwest. The proposal will be subject to a public comment period and a final decision made within a year.

While the wolf’s recent resurgence is likely to continue at some level elsewhere — multiple packs roam portions of Washington and Oregon, and individual wolves have been spotted in Colorado, California, Utah, the Dakotas and the Northeast — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe indicated it’s unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back entirely.

“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.”