LOS ANGELES - An exception will be carved out for a small pocket of about 75 Mexican wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, according to a draft document obtained by the Los Angeles Times that lays out the sweeping rule change.
The move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will eliminate protection for wolves 18 years after the government re-established the predators in the West, where they had been hunted nearly to extinction. Their reintroduction was a success, with the population growing to the thousands.
But their presence has always drawn protests across the Intermountain West from state officials, hunters and ranchers who lost livestock to the wolves. They have lobbied to remove the gray wolf from the endangered list.
Once the protections end, the fate of the wolves is left to individual states.
The species is only beginning to recover in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. California is considering imposing its own protections after the discovery of a lone male that wandered into the state's northern counties from Oregon two years ago.
The species has flourished elsewhere, however, and the government ended endangered status for the gray wolf in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions last year.
Mike Jimenez, who manages wolves in the Rockies for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said delisting in that region underscored a "huge success story."
He said that although wolves are now legally hunted in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the federal agency continues to monitor pack populations and can reinstate protections should numbers reach levels that biologists consider to be dangerously low.
Scientists and conservationists who reviewed the plan said its reasoning is flawed. They challenged how the agency reconfigures the classification of wolf subspecies and its assertion that little habitat remains for wolves.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, the former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and now the president of Defenders of Wildlife, said the decision "reeks of politics" and vowed that it will face multiple legal challenges.
"This is politics versus professional wildlife management," Clark said. "The service is saying, 'We're done. Game over. Whatever happens to wolves in the U.S. is a state thing.' They are declaring victory long before science would tell them to do so."
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release its decision to delist the wolves in coming weeks and it could become final within a year. Brent Lawrence, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, said Thursday that the agency would not comment.
The proposed rule is technically a draft until it is entered into the Federal Register.
Some scientists agreed with the decision to delist the wolves. Others took exception to some of the findings that the agency included in the document, including the scientifically disputed issue of defining wolf subspecies.
"It's a little depressing that science can be used and pitched in this way," said Bob Wayne, a professor of evolutionary biology at UCLA.
Wolves were once common and ranged across much of the continental United States. But as the West became urbanized and ranching spread, government-subsidized hunting that offered bounties for wolf kills virtually wiped out the animals by the 1930s.
A half-century later, scientists recognized the value in restoring top predators to rebalance ecosystems, and federal wildlife managers hashed out a reintroduction program. A group of 66 Canadian wolves was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, and the animals have thrived, exceeding recovery goals each year. More than 1,600 now roam the northern Rockies, although last year the population fell by 7 percent.
Wolves and their presence on the landscape have always elicited passionate responses and stirred political action. In 2011, for example, language that Congress buried in a defense appropriations bill directed that most wolves in the Rockies be removed from the endangered classification.
Such decisions are normally left to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Delisting is not common, and is generally accompanied by much fanfare, as the move signifies a great effort in pulling a species back from the brink of extinction. Only two dozen species have ever been removed from the list.