Federal wildlife officials are removing the gray wolf from the U.S. Endangered Species Act list, saying the wolf population has recovered and the animal no longer requires federal protection in the Lower 48 states.

The national delisting decision announced Thursday turns management of the wolves over to states to handle as they see fit.

It also opens a new chapter in the prolonged legal battle over the wolf's status. While hunters and livestock farmers embraced the delisting, environmental groups vowed to challenge the decision in court.

Long anticipated, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ruling is nonetheless a blockbuster as the wolf reigns with the bald eagle as a majestic and symbolic species in the United States, one revered by many Native American tribes. An estimated 6,000 gray wolves roam the Lower 48 now. The delisting generally opens them to hunting and trapping.

In Minnesota, however, a recreational wolf hunt would require state authorization, and Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have said they oppose wolf hunting. Flanagan is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said the governor is "disappointed" by the decision.

"The governor stands by the Minnesota DNR's written comments to the federal agency that delisting is the wrong decision for both ecological and cultural reasons in the Lower 48," Tschann said.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt officially announced the ruling Thursday at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. In an interview Thursday morning, he said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service used the five-factor analysis required by law to delist a species, and concluded the wolf is no longer endangered or threatened.

"Today's effort is really a milestone in this incredible odyssey," Bern­hardt said. "These wolves are very resilient animals, provided there is not dramatic human-induced mortality."

He added that he grew up hunting and was supposed to be elk hunting in Colorado this week.

A Department of Interior news release claimed that "no administration in history" has recovered more imperiled species in its first term than the Trump administration. Since 2017, the administration has delisted 14 species after finding them "fully recovered."

A defining feature of the Trump administration has been its systematic dismantling of environmental protections. The Endangered Species Act itself has been weakened in the name of efficiency.

The latest ruling removes federal protection for the gray wolf in the Lower 48. Alaska's wolves are not considered endangered and Hawaii doesn't have wolves. Wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain area are already delisted.

Asked about the timing of the announcement, made in a swing state just days before a highly charged presidential election, Bern­hardt called it a coincidence.

"We announce things when they get done," he said.

The final rule was being sent to the Federal Register on Thursday for publishing; the rule takes effect 60 days after being published.

Environmental groups condemned the decision and vowed to fight it in court. The Great Lakes gray wolves, which include Minnesota's, were delisted in 2011, and then relisted in 2014 after a federal judge reinstated the federal protections.

Bernhardt said the administration has learned from prior litigation and expects its decision to hold up in court.

Population management

Minnesota livestock ranchers and hunters have waited for the decision. Shayne Isane, a cattle rancher in Roseau County near the Canada border, said wolf attacks on his cows are on the rise. He lost about four calves last year. Under the Endangered Species Act, he cannot shoot wolves even if he sees them killing a cow. Under state management, he could.

"I don't know of a cattleman out there that wants to see the gray wolf eliminated," Isane said. "They'd prefer some management. The state just hasn't been able to do any management."

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the organization supports managed recreational wolf hunting and trapping. A federal recovery plan determined the state's wolf population would be "recovered" when it reached 1,250 to 1,400, Engwall noted. Minnesota has long exceeded that.

"It's a species that can be managed like other species DNR manages," Engwall said.

The gray wolf was first put on the Endangered Species Act list in the 1970s after habitat loss and uncontrolled killing drove the animal to near extinction.

Minnesota's wolf population has since rebounded and stabilized at 2,700 wolves — the most in the Lower 48.

The wolf numbers in Minnesota meet the criteria for delisting, said Dave Olfelt, director of the DNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife. Still, the agency is far from making a decision on authorizing a wolf hunt, he said. That will be part of "many, many more conversations," he said.

The agency is updating the state's 2001 Wolf Management Plan. Under state law, people can kill wolves themselves to protect livestock or pets. In northeast Minnesota, the wolf must be an "immediate threat" to livestock or pets for a taking, but in the rest of the state the wolf doesn't have to be an immediate threat.

Recovery in infancy

Environmental groups condemned the delisting as a tragic backward step in the face of global crisis, with a changing climate, declining biodiversity and a rising number of plant and animal extinctions. They claim delisting is a death sentence for the gray wolf, whose recovery is still in its infancy.

"It's really sad," said Dr. Maureen Hackett, founder of the Minnesota nonprofit Howling for Wolves.

Hackett said research shows that killing one wolf disrupts the entire wolf pack, causing more deaths. The wolf threat to cattle is overblown, she said, estimating that only 100 farms in Minnesota are affected. Cattle around the country face far graver threats, she said: "Dogs kill more cows than wolves."

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which works with Ojibwe bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, condemned the decision.

"The tribes have very ancient and traditional relationship with what we call ma'iingan — the word for wolf," commission spokesman Dylan Jennings said. "The tribes will take whatever means or avenues necessary to help protect their relative."

Collette Adkins, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said the center will be part of a coalition lawsuit.

The delisting is based on the wolf's recovery in just one area, she said: the Great Lakes region. The gray wolf has not recovered elsewhere. California has only one wolf pack left, she said, and Oregon has only about 100 wolves.

Brett Hartl, chief political strategist for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, called Bern­hardt's announcement a "desperate attempt to woo a few voters in Minnesota."

Conservation groups say the delisting is out of step with the general public. According to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities, more than 757,000 people commented on the proposed delisting plan last year — nearly all opposed.

More than 80 members of the U.S. House and Senate signed letters to Bernhardt last year opposing the delisting as "premature." Minnesota signers included U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Betty McCollum.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683