Federal and state officials are celebrating the successful return of once-endangered wolves to Wyoming -- by declaring open season on the animals.
Beginning Oct. 1, gray wolves will be removed from the rolls of the Endangered Species Act and classified as predators, allowing Wyoming hunters to shoot the animals on sight at any time, for any reason, in about 85 percent of the state.
"Our primary goal, and that of the states, is to ensure that gray wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains remain healthy, giving future generations of Americans the chance to hear its howl echo across the area," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a prepared statement.
Environmental groups that have gone to court over previous measures to de-list the wolves plan to fight the most recent change in the law, said Connie Wilbert, a field organizer for the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club.
Once killed nearly to extinction, in 1978 all species of the gray wolf in the lower 48 states were declared endangered and protected from hunting under federal law.
In the years since they received federal protection, wolf populations have returned across the West. As their numbers swelled, ranchers complained the animals routinely killed their livestock and petitioned the government for permission to kill them.
Removing wolves from the list would give ranchers in much of the state the right to kill wolves on sight. In other areas, wolves will be designated "trophy game" and subject to hunting during seasons regulated by the state.
"It is premature to de-list wolves until problems with Wyoming's state management are corrected," said Wilbert.
"This isn't good wildlife management," she said. "There will be no regulation whatsoever on killing wolves in most of the state."
There are about 270 gray wolves in Wyoming outside Yellowstone National Park. There are another 1,000 or so Northern Rocky Mountain wolves living in Montana and Idaho, which successfully petitioned to have the wolves delisted there, as well.
Wolf hunts will still be illegal in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks.