FOREST LAKE, Minn. (AP) – As a pack of wolves looked on, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said it was time to celebrate the dramatic comeback of the often-feared and sometimes hated predator.

Norton said Friday her department plans to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list across a swath of the eastern United States running from the Dakotas to Maine.

“The recovery of wolf populations in the Rockies and the Great Lakes area has been one of the most notable success stories of the Endangered Species Act,” Norton told an audience of humans and wolves at the Wildlife Science Center, a nonprofit research and educational center 30 miles north of the Twin Cities that’s home to 41 wolves.

The gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf, has bounced back from the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states over the past 30 years under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Their numbers have grown from as few as 350, all in northeastern Minnesota, to almost 4,000 spread across several states.

Standing in front of a large pen containing six wolves, Norton compared the gray wolf’s recovery to that of an intensive care patient who is later released from the hospital.

“It is a wonderful success,” she said. “It is a tremendous achievement for all of those who have been involved in this process.”

As the ceremony drew to a close, one wolf started to howl, joined soon by others across the center. They were loud enough to drown out Walter Medwid, executive director of the International Wolf Center in Ely.

“Wolves have survived in spite of centuries of relentless persecution by humans,” Medwid told the assembled federal, state and tribal officials and wolf supporters. “But unlike the bald eagle or the peregrine falcon, the wolf, being the wolf, will continue to challenge our commitment in keeping it a part of America’s landscape.”

The states most affected by Friday’s announcement are Minnesota, which has the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states at around 2,400, Wisconsin with upward of 370 and Michigan with an estimated 360. Those states will take over management of their own wolf populations, with federal oversight for five years.

The Interior Department upgraded the gray wolf’s status from endangered to threatened everywhere in the lower 48 states last year except for the Southwest, where a subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf, is still struggling.

While gray wolves have been making a comeback in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho since they were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990s, the federal agency has not been able to agree with those states on management plans. The wolf will remain classified as threatened in the West and endangered in the Southwest for now.

Norton’s announcement started a 120-day public comment period. She told reporters her department plans to issue its final rule late this year or early next year – and she expects it will be challenged in court.

“Most of the things we do at the Department of Interior, someone files a lawsuit,” she said.

The National Wildlife Federation criticized the plan as shortsighted because it means the federal government won’t be involved in any efforts to reintroduce the wolf in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, which the group says have suitable habitat. Norton said any reintroduction there would be up to the states themselves.

Minnesota’s management plan divides the state into two zones. In the forested northeastern third of the state, protections would remain strict. Owners of livestock and pets could destroy wolves only if they pose an immediate threat to their animals.

In the rest of the state, wolves would still be protected but livestock and pet owners would have greater freedom to kill or remove wolves to protect their animals.

The plan gives the commissioner of natural resources the authority to allow sport hunting of wolves in that zone, but not in the forest zone, five years after the wolf comes off the list. But no decision on hunting would be made before that, said Mark Holsten, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Scott Hassett, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said he wasn’t sure exactly what his state’s final plan will look like. But he said Wisconsin needs more ways to control its wolf population, which has already reached the official goal and is growing at 20 percent annually.

Current measures that allow killing of wolves that prey on livestock won’t be enough if the growth continues, but Hassett wasn’t ready to say if Wisconsin will have a season on wolves. He did say any hunting might be very limited, perhaps to landowners or lottery winners.

“To us this is a great success story, but we also need the tools in place to keep it where it’s at,” Hassett said.

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