By BEN NEARY
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Gray wolves in Wyoming moved a step closer to losing federal protection Wednesday.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved a deal between Gov. Matt Mead and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that turns wolf management over to the state.
Under the agreement hammered out this summer, Wyoming would classify wolves as unprotected predators that could be shot on sight in most areas.
In a flexible trophy game zone in the northwestern corner of Wyoming around Yellowstone National Park, wolves would be classified as game animals, only subject to being killed by licensed hunters. The plan would require Wyoming to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside the park.
Scott Talbott, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said he welcomes the action the commission took Wednesday at a meeting in Casper. Wyoming is the last state in the Northern Rockies where wolves remain under federal management.
"I think that we as a state can be more responsive to the needs of the state both from a wildlife perspective and from an agriculture perspective," Talbott said. "We're the ones who respond to issues and resolve issues."
Steve Ferrell, wildlife and endangered species policy adviser to Mead, said Wednesday the Interior Department plans to publish a draft delisting rule in early October.
Ferrell said the plan still needs approval of the Wyoming Legislature. He said it's possible that Wyoming could offer scheduled wolf hunts in the trophy game zone as early as fall 2012.
Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and other areas in the mid-1990s. Since then, the wolf population in the Northern Rockies has rebounded to more than 1,600 animals, including more than 300 in Wyoming.
Many ranchers and hunters in the state have expressed concern that wolves are taking too great a toll on elk, moose and livestock.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, spoke at the commission meeting in support of the state plan.
"We were fully supportive of what the governor's done, and we were fully supportive of this plan as the department presented it to the commission today. We think it's the right step forward," Magagna said after the meeting.
"The key thing for our members in the predator area is that if they see a wolf, they can shoot that wolf. Where today, because of the protections that they have, they can't," Magagna said. "In the trophy area, not that much is going to change because the criteria for a landowner taking a wolf that's depredating their livestock will be very similar to what it is today."
Many conservation groups have opposed the Wyoming plan, saying it won't give wolves enough protection for a genetically viable population to survive in the state. The current state plan is similar to an earlier one that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved but then rejected a few years ago after a federal judge criticized it in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
Congress recently specified that its action delisting wolves in other states in the Northern Rockies was immune from legal challenges. Similar language to block legal challenges from the proposed delisting in Wyoming is pending in Congress.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.