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Traverse City – The federal government is considering another attempt to drop legal protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states, reopening a lengthy battle over the predator species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday told The Associated Press it has begun a science-based review of the status of the wolf, which presently is covered by the Endangered Species Act in most of the nation and cannot be killed unless threatening human life.

If the agency decides to begin the process of removing of the wolf from the endangered species list, it will publish a proposal by the end of the year.

“Any proposal will follow a robust, transparent and open public process that will provide opportunity for public comment,” the service said in a statement to the AP.

The federal agency's move happened as Michigan's officials said Thursday that the state's gray wolf population is showing healthy growth. The minimum population of wolves in the Upper Peninsula was estimated to be around 662, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Division, a 7 percent increase from 618 in 2016.

The DNR survey was conducted from December through April when the population is at its lowest points, officials said.

“Based on our latest minimum population estimate, it is clear wolf numbers in Michigan remain viable and robust,” said Russ Mason, chief of the DNR’s wildlife division. “A similar trend is apparent in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The western Great Lakes states’ wolf population is thriving and has recovered.”

Michigan considers 200 or more wolves a “viable” population. There were only six to eight wolves in the state during the 1970s and 1980s after Michigan gray wolves were given legal protection in 1965.

Wolves can only be killed if they are attack humans. Michigan DNR officials have advocated — when allowed — a controlled hunt as well as awarding owners of livestock the right to kill a wolf that threatens their animals.

There was a hunt in 2013 in which 22 wolves were killed after federal officials removed legal protections. A federal court restored the protection in late 2013.

A congressional effort last year to overturn protected species status for gray wolves and allow hunting sputtered out.

The government first proposed revoking the wolf’s protected status in 2013, but backed off after federal courts struck down its plan for “delisting” the species in the western Great Lakes region.

Long despised by farmers and ranchers, wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in most of the U.S. by the mid-20th century. Since securing protection in the 1970s, they have bounced back in parts of the country.

They total about 3,800 in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Other established populations are in the Northern Rockies, where they are no longer listed as endangered, and the Pacific Northwest.

Federal regulators contend they’ve recovered sufficiently for their designation as endangered to be removed and management responsibilities handed over to the states. Environmental groups say it’s too early for that, as wolves still haven’t returned to most of their historical range.

“Time and again the courts have told the service that wolves need further recovery before their protections can be removed,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the agency is dead set on appeasing special interests who want to kill these amazing animals.”

Members of Congress have tried numerous times to strip wolves of legal protection. Another bill to do so is pending in the U.S. House.

Detroit News reporter Leonard N. Fleming contributed

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