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Group seeks grey wolves' protection

Environmentalists have said they intend to sue the Obama administration to force it to restore grey wolves across the lower 48 states - even as Republicans in the US Congress sought unsuccessfully to strip the animals of protection.

The Centre for Biological Diversity said in a formal notice to the Interior Department that it will sue the agency in 60 days unless the government crafts a plan to bring back wolves throughout their historical range.

"Wolves once roamed nearly the whole country and down into Mexico, but at this point there just in a fraction of that range," said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species for the Centre for Biological Diversity.

About 6,000 wolves live in the lower 48 states. They are protected from hunting except in Alaska.

Biologists for the Arizona-based group argue there is enough wild habitat to support thousands of wolves in New England and New York, the southern Rocky Mountains, parts of Colorado and the Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington. But prospects for new wolf packs in other parts of the country are uncertain at best, given how polarised the debate over wolves has become in recent months.

Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has pushed to end federal protections for wolves and turn control over the animals over to states. Lawmakers from states where wolves already roam say there are too many of the predators.

Wolves were poisoned and trapped to near-extermination in the United States in the last century. They have bounced back in some wilderness areas over the past few decades, in part through government-sponsored reintroduction programmes.

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo said the growing population of wolves in the Northern Rockies - more than 1,700 at the end of 2009 - was harming big game herds and domestic livestock. But Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said the Republican Bill would undermine the Endangered Species Act. He criticised what he called an attempt "to solve politically what should be done by good science".

Wolves are notorious predators. Experts say they could survive in most of the country if they were allowed. But a hunger for livestock often gets the animals into trouble, particularly in the Northern Rockies where ranches and wolf territories often overlap.

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