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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- The Obama administration on Friday proposed lifting most remaining federal protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that would end four decades of recovery efforts but that some scientists said was premature.

State and federal agencies have spent more than $117 million restoring the predators since they were added to the endangered species list in 1974. Today more than 6,100 wolves roam portions of the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes.

With Friday's announcement, the administration signaled it's ready to move on: The wolf has rebounded from near-extermination, balance has been restored to parts of the ecosystem, and hunters in some states already are free to shoot the animals under state oversight.

But prominent scientists and dozens of lawmakers in Congress want more wolves in more places. They say protections need to remain in force so the animals can expand beyond the portions of 10 states they now occupy.

Lawsuits challenging the administration's plan are almost certain.

The gray wolf's historical range stretched across most of North America. By the 1930s, government-sponsored trapping and poisoning left just one small pocket of the animals, in northern Minnesota.

In the past several years, after the Great Lakes population swelled and wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, protections were lifted in states where the vast majority of the animals now live: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah. [continue]

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