Most gray wolves will no longer be protected following a ruling yesterday by the Bush administration.

The Interior Department yesterday announced that dwindling wolf populations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Idaho and Montana had been sufficiently replenished to strip them of their endangered status. The feds, however, said that gray wolves in Wyoming aren’t sufficiently protected and will remain on the Endangered Species Act.

Wolves have recovered in the Great Lakes and the northern Rocky Mountains because of the hard work, cooperation and flexibility shown by States, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens of both regions,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett said in a statement. “We can all be proud of our various roles in saving this icon of the American wilderness.”

This is the Bush administration's latest attempt to de-list the wolf; three previous tries were reversed after courts ruled in favor of environmentalists who had sued to keep the animals protected.

Conservationists are threatening to sue again if President-elect Barack Obama doesn’t reverse the decision, one of a series of controversial, last-minute reg changes that President Bush has pushed through during his final days in office. The move is set to take effect a month after it's published next week in the Federal Register.

A transition team spokesman, Nick Shapiro, told the Los Angeles Times that Obama "will review all 11th-hour regulations and will address them once he is president."

The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group based in Tucson, Ariz., is one of the groups vowing to sue. “This rule ignores the wise protections of the Endangered Species Act, will result in the deaths of over a thousand wolves, and will unravel the natural balance these wolves have maintained,” Michael Robinson, an advocate at the center, said in a statement.

The gray wolf was given protected status when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 1974 after logging and hunting in the early 20th century nearly destroyed the species. Its status since has been an ongoing tug-of-war between ranchers who want to kill them because they threaten their livestock (Idaho Gov. Butch Otter once said he'd be the first in line to buy a wolf-hunting tag), and conservationists, who say states don't have management plans in place to protect renewed populations. The Fish & Wildlife Service requires that states in wolf-recovery zones have such plans before the animals can be de-listed.

The wolves' replenishment has had some welcome environmental effects, Scientific American reported in 2004. Among them: their return to Yellowstone National Park helped control the population of elk there, which had eaten trees that beavers relied on for food.

We've got more on the long battle over the wolves' protected status and a rundown of de-listed endangered species.

Image by Gary Kramer/USFWS