Dawn Villella / AP file
A gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn., in 2004.
The gray wolf population has recovered to the point that it can be safely removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday in a proposal that environmental groups suggest is premature.
Under its proposed delisting plan, the wildlife service would return management of gray wolves to the states where they dwell. Federal protections for wolves have been in place since 1978.
In a second proposal, the service would maintain protections and expand recovery efforts for the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest, where it remains endangered.
The gray wolf was extirpated from the lower 48 states by the middle of the 20th century with exception of the Great Lakes area. Wolves from Canada began to recolonize Montana in 1986. In 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
Today, according to the government, there are at least 6,100 gray wolves in the contiguous U.S., including 1,674 in the Northern Rockies and 4,432 in the Western Great Lakes.
Wolves were delisted from the Northern Rockies in 2012 and the Western Great Lakes in 2011. Today's proposal would delist them throughout the country, including fledgling populations in the Pacific Northwest, noted the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
"Our position is they are walking away from wolf recovery before the job is done," Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the group, told NBC News.
In addition to the Pacific Northwest, scientists have concluded suitable wolf habitat remains in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, and parts of the Northeast, Greenwald noted. The federal government, he said, should extend protections to allow wolves to recover in those areas.
Environmental groups are also concerned that anti-wolf policies at the state level will hinder recovery efforts. In the Northern Rockies, more than 1,100 wolves have been killed since protections were removed, for example.
"Now is the time to that we should be pressing in to finish the job of wolf recovery, not abandoning wolves to the same kinds of destructive forces that endangered them in the first place," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a media statement.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, governors and state wildlife agencies in the states with wolves and those expected to gain them as packs disperse across borders, support the proposal and are ready to assume responsibility for management.
A 90-day comment period on the proposed delisting of gray wolves and extended protections for the Mexican wolf subspecies opened upon publication today of the proposals in the Federal Register.
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.