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A key part of Wyoming's plan for managing wolves has been given a green light by the federal agency that later will have to approve it officially.

Wyoming's proposal to maintain at least seven wolf packs outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks "would be adequate to ensure the viability of wolf populations in Wyoming in the foreseeable future," Ralph Morgenweck, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), said in a letter to state officials.

The state Game and Fish Department is developing a wolf-management plan in preparation for removing the wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains from the Endangered Species List. Management of the animals would be turned over to wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Before that happens, each state has to come up with a plan that guarantees a viable, self-sustaining wolf population with at least 15 packs. FWS has to approve the plans before states take management responsibility.

Earlier this year, Wyoming lawmakers passed a bill saying the state's 15 wolf packs will comprise eight within the national parks and seven outside the parks.

Game and Fish officials sent a letter to FWS earlier this month about whether that approach would be acceptable.

"We were seeking some very specific information from Fish and Wildlife Service as to what they were going to require from the state of Wyoming," said Bill Wichers, the department's deputy director. "We want to make sure we follow the legislative intent of that statute but also make sure we submit a plan that the service will approve."

Morgenweck restated his agency's opinion that simply giving protection to wolves in the national parks and adjacent wilderness areas won't be enough to guarantee that the statewide wolf population "will not decline to the point where it becomes threatened again."

Seven packs outside the parks, in addition to those within the parks, will be enough to maintain a population in Wyoming, he said.

There are eight packs outside the national parks in Wyoming, according to state officials.

Wichers said the department did not ask whether Wyoming's proposed dual classification of wolves — some as trophy game and others as predators — will be acceptable to the FWS. The killing of trophy animals is regulated by hunting requirements, but predators are subject to unregulated killing.

The bill approved by lawmakers gives the Game and Fish Commission flexibility to change the classification of wolves based on population figures.

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"The service has indicated the dual classification will be OK as long as the commission has the authority to maintain a viable wolf population," Wichers said.

A draft of Wyoming's wolf plan is expected to be finished in June and given to the commission before its July 28 meeting in Sheridan. If all goes as planned, the commission could give its final approval of the plan at that meeting.

Montana is also expected to complete its wolf plan this summer. With Idaho's plan already final, federal officials could begin the process of removing wolves from the Endangered Species List later this year.

Federal protections could be removed sometime in 2004 but it will probably be later. Each state plan has to be scrutinized by scientists and approved. Lawsuits could delay the process further.

Wichers, though, said department officials are pleased to know that one portion of their plan — a minimum of seven packs — will pass muster.

"That was one question that was still hanging out there," he said.

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