The gray wolf will no longer enjoy federal protection, according to a long-anticipated decision announced Thursday by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt just five days ahead of the presidential election.

In a move that is sure to be challenged in court, Bernhardt proclaimed gray wolves, once hunted out of existence in Utah and other Western states, “fully recovered” during a speech given at a Minnesota wildlife preserve, arguing the apex predator’s survival no longer requires protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“Today’s action reflects the Trump administration’s continued commitment to species conservation based on the parameters of the law and the best scientific and commercial data available,” said Bernhardt while visiting the Minnesota Valley Nation Wildlife Refuge. “After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery.”

Minnesota was the one lower state wolves still inhabited by the mid-20th century after decades of systematic efforts to rid the nation of the animal blamed for livestock deaths.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based its final determination solely on the best scientific and commercial data available, a thorough analysis of threats and how they have been alleviated, according to Bernhardt. The decision does not affect federal protections for Mexican gray wolves, an endangered subspecies whose recovery in Arizona and New Mexico has largely stalled.

Today, about 6,000 gray wolves roam the United States, mostly in the northern tier of the nation from the Great Lakes to eastern Washington, according to the delisting rule posted on the Federal Register.

“This remarkable recovery success has been achieved as a result of more than 45 years of collaboration and partnerships with states, tribes, conservation organizations, private landowners, and other federal partners,” the Service announced at that time. "Many of our state and tribal partners in areas where the wolf is already delisted continue to demonstrate their ability to effectively manage their wolf populations.

The gray wolf is the 14th species delisted under Trump’s watch and another six have been downlisted from threatened to endangered status, according to the Interior Department’s announcement.

Conservationists say the job of wolf recovery across its range is far from complete.

Vowing to sue to invalidate it, critics blasted the delisting decision as the tainted fruit of politics with insufficient grounding in science as required by the law.

“Again and again, the courts have rejected premature removal of wolf protection,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But instead of pursuing further wolf recovery, the Fish and Wildlife Service has just adopted the broadest, most destructive delisting rule yet. The courts recognize, even if the feds don’t, that the Endangered Species Act requires real wolf recovery, including in the southern Rockies and other places with ideal wolf habitat.”

Western states' leaders have long vilified wolves and have pushed for lethal removal of wolves, which will now become the norm in many places, critics contend.

“The battle over wolf recovery is, unfortunately, both politically charged and partisan,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians. “For decades, ranchers have demonized wolves because they are an impediment to carefree, inexpensive grazing of private livestock on public lands. Finalizing delisting of wolves a few days before an election is a gift to the ranching and agricultural interests, plain and simple.”

The gray wolf had previously been delisted in the Northern Rockies by an act of Congress, which recognized the successful reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone region that began in the mid-1990s. Wolf packs have long been reestablished in Montana, the Idaho Panhandle and northwest Wyoming, and individual wolves have been spotted in Utah from time to time. A hunter killed one in Beaver County after mistaking it for coyote, an animal that anyone can shoot at any time and anywhere in Utah.

Utah leaders have been pushing for wolves' complete delisting for years, even steering $5.1 million in taxpayer money to a private group to advocate the cause. Their goal, which has now been accomplished with Bernhardt’s announcement, was to bring wolves under state management under a plan that would allow for just two breeding pairs in the Beehive State.

“The gray wolf is one of the most successful species recoveries in history, despite the mounds of federal red tape and abusive litigation preventing this long-overdue delisting,” said Utah’s outgoing Rep. Rob Bishop on Thursday. “It’s unfortunate it took this long for the federal government to turn management back to the states, when in fact state management and expertise is what got us to where we are today.”

Utah’s management plan serves as an interim plan that will be revised once wolves are established, meaning “at least two breeding pairs of wild wolves successfully raising at least two young for two consecutive years.”

The plan’s goal is to manage, study and conserve wolves that move into Utah, while also avoiding conflicts with the wildlife management objectives of the Ute Indian Tribe, preventing livestock depredation, and protecting Utah’s investment in wildlife in Utah.

“During the interim period, any arriving wolves will be studied to determine where they are most likely to settle without conflict,” DWR said in a statement posted Wednesday. “Livestock owners will have options for dealing with wolf depredation and will be fully compensated for losses of livestock to wolves.”

Next week, Colorado voters will go to the polls to decide whether wolves will be reintroduced in the western portion of that state in a project that could speed wolves' arrival in the Beehive State.

Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said Utah is ready for the job of managing the predator.

“With the number of wolves growing across the West, we believe it is time to allow the states to take the helm,” Steed said. “Utah has shown great success in growing and maintaining wildlife populations statewide, and we anticipate similar success in managing wolf populations.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within the Interior Department, first proposed delisting in 2018, barely a year after President Donald Trump was sworn in. A final rule should have been announced by March, but the administration appears to have waited until the heat of Trump’s reelection battle to unveil it for maximum political benefit, critics charge.