By BEN NEARY
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The federal government plans to announce an end to protections for wolves in Wyoming later this month.
Rather than ending years of wrangling between state and federal officials, however, the move promises to spark legal challenges from environmental groups outraged that the state plans to classify wolves as predators that can be shot on sight in most areas.
Wyoming has been chaffing under federal wolf protections for years. Ranchers and hunters started complaining that wolves were taking an unacceptable toll on cattle and wildlife soon after the federal government reintroduced the species to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead last year reached an agreement with U.S. Interior Sec. Ken Salazar that calls for the state to take over wolf management. The deal followed a long series of lawsuits involving the state, the federal government and environmental groups driven by the state's desire to take over wolf management.
The federal government's final delisting plan calls for Wyoming to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 100 individual animals outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. Wildlife managers say there are currently about 270 wolves in the state outside Yellowstone.
The state intends to classify wolves in the remaining 90 percent of Wyoming as predators, subject to being killed anytime by anyone.
The state would take over wolf management responsibility 30 days after the scheduled Aug. 31 publication of the federal government's final delisting rule.
The Wyoming Game Commission has approved wolf hunts starting Oct. 1 in a flexible zone generally bordering Yellowstone's eastern and southern flanks. The state is prepared to issue unlimited hunting licenses but will call a halt after hunters kill 52 wolves.
Steve Ferrell, wildlife policy adviser to Mead, said the governor is confident it will meet its obligation under the management plan to sustain the required number of wolves.
"Our plan will maintain a sustainable population of wolves in Northwestern Wyoming, and it will contribute Wyoming's share of the recovery goal of wolves in the Rocky Mountains," Ferrell said.
Bob Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a pro-hunting group, said he believes wolf hunting is long overdue in the state.
"I think there is going to be some resistance from the environmental community, but it's unfortunate," Wharff said.
"It's one of those things that some segments will never be happy with the fact that wolves are going to be killed," Wharff said. However, he said he thinks it's in everybody's best interest to keep wolves from spreading into areas where they're not compatible.
The federal delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana in recent years included action by Congress specifying that the move wasn't subject to legal challenges. Although Wyoming's congressional delegation has said it wants similar immunity for delisting in Wyoming, it hasn't happened.
Jenny Harbine is a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., a group that has mounted legal challenges to previous wolf delisting efforts.
"It's safe to say that if the Fish and Wildlife Service approves Wyoming's state law and wolf management plan as they are now, we are likely to challenge any decision to delist Wyoming wolves," Harbine said.
Andrew Wetzler, director of the Land and Wildlife Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, also said his group can't commit to taking legal action to try to block the Wyoming plan until the final version is released. However, he said his group sees problems with the state-federal delisting agreement.
"It's essentially turning Wyoming into a free-fire wolf-kill zone outside of national parks and a few national forests," Wetzler said of the state plan. "That's a huge problem for the population, and it doesn't take a conservation biologist to figure that out."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.