The Trump administration is working to lift endangered species protections for gray wolves in the U.S. by the end of 2020. Experts and activists say the species is at risk of slipping back toward extinction if the plans go through.
"We're working hard to have this done by the end of the year and I'd say it's very imminent," Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told The Associated Press on Monday.
Officials have proposed dropping gray wolves from the list of endangered species in the lower 48 states. Removing federal protections means giving states the power to manage their own animal populations — despite most not having the proper plans in place to do so.
In the 1900s, the wolf population suffered innumerable losses after being shot, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction, in addition to ongoing habitat loss and loss of prey due to humans. But the population has rebounded in the last few decades, with numbers now exceeding 5,500 across the lower 48 states, according the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Skipwith told AP that wolves have "biologically recovered" and that removing the species from the list would highlight the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act.
Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington state have already removed wolves from their endangered lists, but federal protections persist in other states, AP reports. In 2015, a federal judge restored wolf protections in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The decision was upheld by an appeals court in 2017.
There are an additional 7,700 - 11,200 gray wolves in Alaska that are not protected by the Endangered Species Act, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Trump administration has been working for years to return the management of wild animals and protected wildnerness back to state officials — despite numerous lawsuits and setbacks in federal court. Certain lawmakers have also been working to weaken the Endangered Species Act, which is crucial to the protection of animals at risk of extinction.
Wildlife protection groups say that wolf populations remain vulnerable, and will have little chance to thrive if the rollbacks succeed.
"History tells us that under the states' authority to manage wolf populations, wolves die at the hands of trophy hunters," the Wolf Conservation Center tweeted Tuesday.
In addition to attempts to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, recently proposed changes would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service from designating land that is not currently suitable as a habitat, but that could be restored, as a "critical habitat" — areas that are essential to the species' recovery. This tactic has helped to conserve the Canada lynx, killer whales, manatees and jaguars in the past, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Instead, corporations would be able to take over that land and use it for industrial purposes.
"What makes this proposal even more outrageous is the fact that it comes at a time when we know that habitat loss is already pushing so many animals to extinction," said Sara Amundson, the president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. "To reverse this loss, our government needs to be working hard to conserve more of our wild spaces, not giving them away for development, energy exploration or other commercial purposes."
But officials believe wolves won't expand much further than the habitats they currently occupy. "We don't anticipate them expanding, regardless of that federal protection," Skipwith told AP.