TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - A federal appeals court Tuesday retained federal protection for gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region, ruling that the government acted prematurely when it dropped them from the endangered species list.
The court upheld a district judge who in 2014 overruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had determined that wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin had recovered after being shot, trapped and poisoned nearly out of existence in the previous century. They've bounced back and now total about 3,800.
The service announced in 2011 that wolves in the region would be stripped of their endangered status and managed on the state level.
In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the service had not adequately considered a number of factors in making its decision, including loss of the wolf's historical range and how its removal from the endangered list would affect the predator's recovery in other areas, such as New England, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The ruling prohibits the three states from having wolf hunting or trapping seasons, as they did when wolves were under their control.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service had no immediate comment.
The same court took wolves in Wyoming off the endangered list in May.
Environmental advocates cheered the ruling on Great Lakes wolves, saying they remain vulnerable despite their comeback in recent decades.
"The second highest court in the nation reaffirmed that we must do much more to recover gray wolves before declaring the mission accomplished," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Wolves are still missing from more than 90 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states, and both the Endangered Species Act and common sense tell us we can't ignore that loss."
Killing an endangered animal is illegal unless human life is threatened. Organizations representing farmers and ranchers, who want authority to shoot wolves preying on livestock, have long pushed to drop them from the federal list, a move that hunting groups also favor.
Some members of Congress have tried repeatedly to attach provisions to various bills that would "delist" wolves, return management responsibilities to the states and bar further court challenges. The latest effort fizzled in May when congressional negotiators dropped such a proposal from a spending measure.
Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, urged the Trump administration to appeal the court ruling. "Our farmers deserve to be able to protect their livestock, and they should not suffer because of the decisions made by an overreaching federal government a thousand miles away," Duffy said.