In a decision hoped to close one of the West's most contentious debates, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared mission accomplished for recovering the gray wolf, the predator government officials had exterminated from the West nearly a century ago.
The agency has concluded wolves no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. On Friday, federal authorities proposed delisting the wolf, but insisted the Mexican gray wolf remain listed as an endangered subspecies.
While sportsmen's groups and state wildlife officials praised the delisting move, conservationists expressed dismay, saying the gray wolf has yet to return to much of its native range in the Pacific Northwest and southern Rockies.
The proposal to keep listing the Mexican gray wolf is sure to raise concerns in the Beehive State since some biologists believe southern Utah is within Mexican wolves' historic range. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources denies this, while politicians have alleged federal authorities are bent on introducing Mexican wolves in the state.
To justify delisting, federal officials point to the gray wolves' remarkable rebound since the animal was reintroduced in the Northern Rockies in 1995.
"An exhaustive review of the latest scientific and taxonomic information shows that we have accomplished that goal with the gray wolf, allowing us to focus our work ... on recovery of the Mexican wolf subspecies in the Southwest," Dan Ashe, Fish and Wildlife Service director, said in a news release.
But conservationists say the job is far from complete and that it is unlikely wolf populations will thrive because Western states regard wolves as a threat to agriculture, rather than a key part of a functioning ecosystem.
"Stopping now before the population is fully recovered will negate the decades of hard work that have gone into bringing wolves back from the brink of extinction. Without federal protections, this symbol of our wild heritage will slide back into harm's way," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a news release.
But leading sportsmen say it's time to declare victory in wolf recovery and graduate the species to state-based management.
"We support the administration's decision to advance science-based, responsible wildlife management that speaks to the values of sportsmen across the nation," said Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Utah wildlife officials agree the time has come to delist wolves and let states manage them. Wolves were eradicated from Utah by the 1930s, but they are believed to be re-entering the state from the north, although none has become established here.
Utah's wolf plan will take effect once the proposed delisting is final next year. The plan seeks to "manage, study and conserve wolves moving into Utah while avoiding conflicts with the wildlife management objectives of the Ute Indian Tribe; preventing livestock depredation; and protecting the investment made in wildlife in Utah."
The plan defines the establishment of a wolf population as two breeding pairs producing two pups each over two consecutive years. Meanwhile, it allows killing wolves deemed a threat to livestock.
"It does not offer meaningful recovery of wolves in their ancestral hunting grounds and as an integral part of Utah's natural heritage," said Wild Utah Project's Allison Jones, who represented the conservation community on the working group that drafted the plan.
"Conservationists gave up a lot. We swallowed bitter pills. We were OK with killing wolves caught killing livestock," Jones said. "But it's not OK for any rancher or his hand to shoot on sight, on private or public land, wolves they believe are harassing livestock. They can kill that wolf with no training, no permit, no nothing."
Utah's political leadership makes no secret of its desire to minimize the wolf's presence here.
Sportsmen and ranchers have long argued the state has an obligation to keep them at bay for the good of wildlife and livestock.
The Utah Legislature appropriated $300,000 this year and last year to Big Game Forever, a political action group that spun off Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, to lobby against federal wolf introduction, even though federal officials say no such plan is in the works and a delisting decision has been expected for months.