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BILLINGS, Mont. — Federal wildlife officials have drafted plans to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that could end a decades-long recovery effort that has restored the animals but only in parts of their historic range.

The draft U.S. Department of Interior rule obtained by The Associated Press contends that the roughly 6,000 wolves now living in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes are enough to prevent the species’ extinction. The agency says having gray wolves elsewhere — such as the West Coast, parts of New England and elsewhere in the Rockies — is unnecessary for their long-term survival.

A small population of Mexican wolves in the Southwest would continue to receive federal protections, as a distinct subspecies of the gray wolf.

Washington wildlife managers say they support the federal proposal and that delisting wolves would actually make their job of recovering wolves easier.

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David Ware, director of the wildlife division at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted Washington has a wolf-conservation plan that would remain in place to ensure recovery of wolves in this state no matter what happens with the federal ESA listing.

If the listing is dropped, managers would at least have consistency on their side. Today, wolves are listed for federal protection west of Highway 97, but not east of it.

Meanwhile, wolf populations have been burgeoning in the state, with the population up at least 31 percent over 2011 levels to at least 51 known wolves in nine packs, according to the state’s most recent survey. Another pack has been discovered near Wenatchee, even since that survey was completed a few months ago.

To help deal with some of the political backlash as populations increase, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission Friday adopted an emergency rule that enables landowners to shoot and kill wolves in the act of killing livestock and other domestic animals. The policy does not apply where wolves are federally listed. The commission will consider, perhaps as soon as this fall, whether to make the rule permanent.

The loss of federal protections would be welcomed nationwide by ranchers and others in the agriculture industry, whose stock at times become prey for hungry wolf packs.

Their complaints spurred Western lawmakers two years ago to remove wolves from the endangered list in five states by force, after the issue got bogged down by environmentalists’ lawsuits.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday the rule was under review and would be published in the Federal Register and opened to public comment before a final decision is made.

The proposal was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

If the rule is enacted, it would transfer control of wolves to state wildlife agencies by removing them from the federal list of endangered species. The government has been considering such a move since at least 2011, but previously held off given concerns among scientists and wildlife advocates who warn it could effectively halt the species’ expansion.

John Vucetich, a wolf specialist and biologist at Michigan Tech University, said suitable habitat remains in large sections of the Rockies, the nation’s midsection and the Northeast. Wolves presently occupy only about 15 percent of their historical range, but that could be greatly expanded if humans allow it, he said.

“It ends up being a political question more than a biological one,” Vucetich said. “It’s very unlikely the wolves will make it to places like the Dakotas and the Northeast unless the federal government provides some kind of leadership.”

Wildlife advocates say the proposal threatens to cut short the gray wolf’s dramatic recovery from widespread extermination.

But some biologists have argued wolves will continue spreading regardless of their legal status. The animals are prolific breeders, known to journey hundreds of miles in search of new territory. They were wiped out across most of the U.S. early last century following a government sponsored poisoning and trapping campaign.

Between 1991 and 2011, the federal government spent $102 million on gray wolf recovery programs and state agencies chipped in $15.6 million. Federal spending likely would drop if the proposal to lift protections goes through, while state spending would increase.

Seattle Times staff reporter Lynda V. Mapes contributed to this report.

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