WASHINGTON — After reversing President Bush on a pack of environmental rules in its first month, the Obama administration let one of Bush's last-minute changes stand Friday: removal of the gray wolf from the endangered species list in the Upper Midwest, Idaho and Montana.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, announcing the decision at a news conference, said the finding by the Fish and Wildlife Service under Bush was "a supportable one. . . . Scientists have concluded that recovery has occurred."
He also agreed with the Bush administration's decision to keep the wolf on the endangered species list in Wyoming, calling that state's wolf recovery plan insufficient.
Salazar praised efforts by Idaho and Montana to restore and manage wolf populations and said, "I do not believe we should hold those states hostage to the inadequacy we've seen in Wyoming."
The delisting of the gray wolf was the latest chapter in an ongoing battle between the federal government and environmental groups, which successfully sued to keep the animal on the endangered list.
Bush's Interior Department announced the delisting in the final days of his term, and it wasn't finalized by the time President Obama took office and froze all pending rule changes.
Salazar's announcement Friday almost assuredly means environmentalists will sue again to keep the wolf under federal protection, continuing the saga of an animal that rouses fierce debate among ranchers and conservationists in the West.
"This delisting rule is bad for wolves," said Jenny Harbine, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont. "Wolves aren't recovered biologically, and they still need the protection of the Endangered Species Act."
Harbine said Earthjustice will formally ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider the decision. "If they don't," she said, "we'll take this unlawful and unsound rule to court."
Wolves once roamed most of the nation, but dwindled to near-extinction before the Clinton administration reintroduced them in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Populations grew quickly enough that a decade after reintroduction, Bush officials tried to remove the wolf from the endangered list, only to be blocked by courts.
Salazar, who grew up on a ranch in rural Colorado, made the announcement on Friday, traditionally the day for an administration to dump news it knows could stir controversy. The news also came after a string of Obama administration moves to freeze or roll back Bush-era environmental decisions, including Salazar's moves to slow efforts to increase oil and gas development offshore and in Rocky Mountain shale.
On Tuesday, Obama marked the department's 160th anniversary by announcing he was overruling a Bush decision to allow federal agencies to determine on their own whether construction projects would harm endangered species.
He restored the practice of requiring all agencies to consult with expert biologists about potential effects on endangered plants or wildlife.