A U.S. appeals court on Friday ruled to lift protections that kept grey wolves an endangered species in Wyoming for years after federal officials removed packs in neighbouring states from that list.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia doesn't take effect immediately, however. Environmental groups that want to keep the protections in place will have a chance to appeal.
Grey wolves were once hunted to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states, but they recovered under Endangered Species Act protections and reintroduction programs. They now number around 5,500, including about 400 in Wyoming, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Fish and Wildlife determined in 2011 that grey wolves were no longer a threatened species in Wyoming. State officials promised to maintain a population above the minimum 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
But U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided with environmental groups in 2014, ruling that Wyoming's promise was unenforceable, and she rejected the state wolf management plan.
In its reversal, a three-judge panel of the appellate court said federal officials exercised proper judgment and adequately responded to concerns about Wyoming's management plan.
The environmental groups haven't decided whether to appeal, said Rebecca Riley, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, the Natural Resources Defence Council.
But Riley added the decision is "a step backwards for wolf recovery in the West."
The Fish and Wildlife Service had no immediate comment Friday, spokesman Ryan Moehring said.
Wyoming state rules would establish wolf hunts, among other things.
"We're aware of the decision but don't have guidance yet on what it means in terms of wolf management," said Renny MacKay, a spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Members of Congress from Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been pushing for federal legislation to remove grey wolves from the endangered list in their states before spring, when most cows and sheep give birth and are vulnerable to wolf attacks.
Republicans have long wanted to reduce the power of the Endangered Species Act, which can result in strict limits on land use. With Congress and the White House now under their control, Republicans plan to review the law this year.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said last month the law is not working.
Since the act was passed in 1973, 1,652 plant an animal species have been listed as endangered or threatened, but only 47 have recovered sufficiently to be taken off the list, he said.
Barrasso, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi and Rep. Liz Cheney, all Republicans, welcomed the appeals court ruling.
"Sound science, not the courts, should decide when a species is recovered," Cheney sad. "This ruling will again put the process of managing the grey wolf back where it belongs — in Wyoming's capable hands."
Republican Gov. Matt Mead said he looks forward to a time when the state can officially take over management of the wolf population.
This story has been corrected to show the judge's name is Amy Berman Jackson, not Amy Berman.
Volz reported from Helena, Montana. Elliott reported from Denver.
Matt Volz And Dan Elliott, The Associated Press