In an abbreviated, terse press conference on Wednesday Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will propose removing gray wolves (Canis lupus) from the endangered species list in the northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes.

Last month, lawmakers in Congress added riders to the annual budget bill to remove wolves in the Rockies from the Endangered Species Act, circumventing scientific evidence and advice in the process. The action by Congress and the proposal from Salazar supersedes federal court rulings granting greater levels of protections to the wolves.

The proposal would not remove protections from wolves in Wyoming, which the FWS has previously ruled does not have an acceptable wolf management plan in place.

"Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican, and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act," Salazar said during the press conference. "The gray wolf's biological recovery reflects years of work by scientists, wildlife managers, and our state, tribal, and stakeholder partners to bring wolf populations back to healthy levels."

Not everyone agrees that wolves are recovered. "The feds are declaring victory, but gray wolves still only survive in 5 percent of their former range, and even in those places they continue to face a real threat of persecution," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement. "Taking protection away from them now is premature and will impede the long-term recovery of wolves in the United States."

Others say the political move undermines science and the Endangered Species Act. "While today's announcement comes as no surprise, the action taken by Congress and the Obama administration last month to strip federal protections for wolves was unwarranted and extremely disappointing," Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said in a statement. "It has undermined our nation's commitment to good stewardship and sets a terrible precedent for side-stepping America’s bedrock environmental laws whenever it's politically convenient to do so."

The proposal to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region (encompassing Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and adjoining states) was not part of the recent budget rider. FWS acting director Rowan Gould said, "Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes are recovered and no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act."

Almost all of the states where wolves would be delisted have been waiting for wolves to leave the ESA so they could reinstate wolf hunting; they now plan to cull wolf populations by as much as half. This week, Montana proposed a fall hunting season which would allow for 220 wolves to be shot, the highest amount ever.

Also unexpected was a proposal to remove the gray wolf from the ESA in 29 eastern states, based on new evidence that they never lived there. The wolves found in much of Canada and the eastern U.S. are actually eastern wolves (Canis lycaon), which were previously listed as a subspecies of the gray wolf but which new evidence suggests is a separate species.

FWS will initiate status reviews of the eastern wolf and the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) to determine their long-term need for protection.

Throughout the press conference, Salazar referred to the long line of lawsuits that have moved wolves on and off the ESA in the past several years, calling them "unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute."

The full proposal will be published Thursday in the Federal Register. Public comments will be accepted on the Great Lakes delisting, but the northern Rockies ruling will be considered final and take effect immediately.

Photo: Gray wolf by Francis Danforth via Flickr under Creative Commons license