The gray wolf, or timber wolf, has recovered to the point it no longer warrants federal protection in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., says the U.S. Department of Interior. The late-July press conference was the first step toward handing control of the wolves back to the states, a process that could take a year or more.

Wolves became federally protected in 1973 with passage of the Endangered Species Act. At that time, wolves numbered fewer than 500 in the U.S. outside of Alaska. The population was upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” two years ago.

The federal action applies only to the eastern half of the U.S., 23 states in all, with the greatest effect on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Today, there are an estimated 2,500 wolves in Minnesota, double the stated goal of the original recovery plan. Meanwhile, wolves number around 400 in Wisconsin and 360 in Michigan.

Following a four-month public comment period, a final rule is expected by late 2004.