The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the wolf is a prime example of successful recovery under the Endangered Species Act.
When the animal was first put under federal protection in the 1970s, there were perhaps 500 to 1,000 animals in the entire lower 48 states.
Now, Minnesota alone has nearly 3,000 wolves. There are about 1,500 in the northern Rockies, and 500 each in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"We have more wolves in more places, with fewer problems, than anyone anticipated when they were listed in 1974," said Lyle Laverty, an assistant secretary in the Interior Department who has been working on wolf recovery.
The Fish and Wildlife Service first tried to remove the federal protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes region in early 2007.
Several groups, including the Humane Society of the U.S., fought the measure in court, saying the wolves may be doing well in the northern portions of three states -- but that only represents a tiny part of the animals' original range.
The whole matter of whether there should be federal protection for the gray wolf has hinged on a technicality.
Last September, a federal court ruling questioned the Fish and Wildlife Service's interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The agency created "distinct population segments" -- one in the Great Lakes and one in the Rocky Mountains. At the very same time, the Bush administration declared that the Great Lakes population was no longer at risk.
That whole approach by the agency was struck down, and the ruling put the wolf back on the protected list.
While the matter was working its way through the court, Minnesota and other states took over management of wolves.
Meanwhile, a dozen environmental groups were fighting delisting in the Rocky Mountain region, and last July a judge ruled that the state laws, especially in Wyoming, were inadequate to protect wolves once they left federal control.
Plans in the Great Lakes states were approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service, before the original delisting. Dan Stark is the Minnesota DNR's wolf management specialist.
"During the time that wolves were delisted, I think the plan demonstrated well that wolves were being protected and we were resolving conflicts that arise with livestock depredation and other human-related issues," said Stark.
Stark says during the 18 months of state control, farmers killed 11 wolves. That's legal under state rules, but banned under federal protection.
Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups fighting the Rocky Mountain delisting, says numerous wolves were killed in Wyoming alone during the five months of state control.
Wildlife groups are poised to fight the latest move by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Howard Goldman, a regional director for the Humane Society of the U.S., says nothing has changed to persuade a court to accept the new delisting decisions.
"These are over 500 pages long, when you look at both rules. And what we think the Fish and Wildlife Service has done is try to paper over some of the defects in their previous arguments," said Goldman. "They can't make a straightforward argument on this."
Goldman says he thinks the Obama administration will overturn the delisting, and rather than fight in court, federal officials might try to come up with an approach all sides can live with.
The actual delisting of the wolf in Minnesota and other states will take effect next month. The DNR is poised to resume management then.