The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the removal of Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states on Thursday.
The agency characterized the decision as a celebratory move acknowledging the comeback that wolves in the wild have made over the past few decades.
“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a statement. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”
But numerous conservation, environmental and animal welfare groups blasted the decision as a harmful one that will be devastating to still-precarious wolf populations.
“This is no ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment for wolf recovery,” Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice, said in a statement sent to HuffPost. “Wolves are only starting to get a toehold in places like Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and wolves need federal protection to explore habitat in the Southern Rockies and the Northeast. This delisting decision is what happens when bad science drives bad policy — and it’s illegal, so we will see them in court.”
Other organizations promising to challenge the decision in court include Defenders of Wildlife, the Western Environmental Law Center and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Delisting wolves means their management will essentially be left up to the states, though the USFWS does require states to submit a five-year monitoring plan for any species delisted because of a recovery. Conservationists nevertheless fear that removing federal protections will result in state-sanctioned hunts that kill wolves in devastating numbers.
Gray wolves were already delisted in Idaho and Montana, a process that began under President George W. Bush and was finalized under President Barack Obama.
There are a total of about 6,000 wild gray wolves in Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the USFWS. Wolves are also beginning to expand in small numbers into Northern California.
Gray wolves in the lower 48 states (wolves have never been listed as endangered in Alaska) were added to the endangered species list in 1974. At that time, gray wolves were nearly extinct in those states after decades of hunting and intentional extermination efforts.
USFWS started reintroducing wild wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s.
Since then, wolves’ endangered status has been a contentious issue. The decision to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana was initially overturned by the courts, then ultimately reinstated in 2011.
The USFWS also delisted Wyoming gray wolves in 2012, but a federal district court reinstated protections for them two years later. The Obama administration also proposed delisting the wolves across the lower 48 states, though it didn’t ultimately happen.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.