CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- U.S. and state officials said Thursday they were close to reaching a deal over how to end federal protections for wolves in Wyoming.
However, environmental groups criticized the proposal that would allow wolves to be shot on sight in most of the state. They also said a pending congressional proposal to exempt the plan from court review promises to undermine the Endangered Species Act.
Wyoming is the last state in the Northern Rockies where the federal government still manages the wolf population.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said the wolf population clearly has recovered in the region and he expects to publish a rule by the end of September detailing how to turn over management of Wyoming wolves to the state.
Pressure to end federal wolf protections is high in Wyoming, where some ranchers and hunters are concerned about the animals feeding on livestock and wildlife.
Gov. Matt Mead said agricultural producers recognize the number of wolves will keep growing if the state doesn't break its stalemate with the federal government on the issue.
Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, joined Salazar and Mead at a news conference at the Wyoming State Capitol.
"The success here is that wolves will continue to be a piece of the western landscape, but so will ranching." Ashe said.
Environmental groups have fought hard for years against allowing Wyoming to follow through on its plan to classify wolves as predators that could be shot on sight outside of an established zone in the northwestern corner of the state. Within the zone, the animals would be classified as trophy game.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., previously announced she is pushing legislation to specify that any deal between the state and U.S. government over lifting wolf protections would be exempt from judicial review.
Congress granted similar protections against lawsuits to wolf delisting efforts in Idaho and Montana that were completed earlier this year despite criticism that the move erodes the Endangered Species Act.
Salazar declined to comment on the proposal by Lummis.
"What we had to do was find our way through to where we were following our requirements under the law, and getting to a point where the wolf could be delisted," Salazar said of the Idaho and Montana provisions. "We'll get there with Wyoming as well."
The agreement in principle calls for Wyoming to commit to keeping at least 100 wolves alive in areas outside Yellowstone National Park, Mead said.
Since their reintroduction in Yellowstone and other areas in the mid-1990s, the wolf population in the Northern Rockies has rebounded up to more than 1,600 animals. Mead said more than 340 wolves live in Wyoming, including nearly 300 outside the park.
Mead said the possible creation of a "flex zone" on an undetermined amount of land south of the Snake River in western Wyoming also is being discussed. Wolves would be protected and free to migrate through the area in the winter but left unprotected other times of the year, he said.
Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity in New Mexico, said his group is concerned about exempting the state management plan from review in the courts.
"Very likely they're going to kill off almost half of the wolves in Wyoming and that must not be insulated from judicial review," Robinson said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in early 2008 removed federal protections for wolves in Wyoming and other states. The federal agency then reversed itself after a U.S. judge in Montana criticized Wyoming's plan in a ruling in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the latest plan seems, "no different than what had previously been proposed by Wyoming and rejected by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the courts."
Mead, however, believes the current plan would have a good chance of surviving judicial review because the number of wolves has increased in recent years and it proposes establishing the migratory corridor in the Snake River area.
He also said congressional approval is important.
"What we don't want to do is for the Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming to agree on a plan and then spend years in court in no man's land," he said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.