WASHINGTON - The Obama administration backed away - for now - from its plan to lift federal protections for gray wolves throughout the continental United States after an independent report on Friday faulted the science behind the proposal.
The study by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis found that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's proposal to delist the animal from the Endangered Species Act is "not well supported by the available science," according to a statement from the University of California-Santa Barbara, which houses the center.
The proposal "was strongly dependent on a single publication, which was found to be preliminary and not widely accepted by the scientific community," according to the statement.
The authors -- who at the administration's request did a peer review of the science behind the wolf plan -- said additional research is needed before the administration can decide whether to delist the species or keep it on Endangered Species Act.
The Fish & Wildlife Service turned to the California center for an objective scientific analysis after encountering a barrage of criticism from conservationists and scientists whose research was used in writing new wolf rules. The government had no role in picking the scientists who did the study.
In response to the findings, the Fish & Wildlife Service decided to once again seek public input before issuing final wolf rules. The previous public comment period ended in December and the administration planned to issue a final rule this year.
Reopening public comments is a sign that the administration is rethinking its position.
"Peer review is an important step in our efforts to assure that the final decision on our proposal to delist the wolf is based on the best available scientific and technical information," Fish & Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. "We are incorporating the peer review report into the public record for the proposed rulemaking, and accordingly, reopening the public comment period."
Critics of the delisting effort hope the administration reverses itself.
A vocal critic, Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., praised the authors for providing a dispassionate, scientific review free of political bias.
"The experts who have reviewed the so-called science behind the proposed rule have spoken," said DeFazio, ranking Democrat of the House Natural Resources Committee.
"The peer review released today leaves no option but for the Fish & Wildlife Service to rescind the proposed rule and continue federal protections that are essential to the long-term survival and recovery of gray wolves," he said. "Continued protection . . . is the only way that gray wolves will ever return to a significant portion of their range and reclaim their place as a keystone species of American landscapes."
Gray wolves in the lower 48 states have been under federal protection since 1967.
In recent years, gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and the western Great Lakes region were delisted after the government said those populations are rebounding.
The Fish & Wildlife Service proposed delisting gray wolves throughout the lower 48 but keeping the Mexican gray wolf, found only in the Southwest, on the endangered-species list.
Farmers, ranchers and hunters wanted the delisting, which was also backed by a number of congressional Republicans. Many Democrats and conservation groups opposed the rules, arguing that the wolves need more time to recover after being nearly wiped out in the continental U.S.
North America had an estimated 2 million gray wolves in the 1500s. Today, there are thought to be about 6,000 in the lower 48 states. The species is not endangered in Alaska, home to 7,000-11,000 of the animals. Canada has at least 40,000 gray wolves, which are also known as timber wolves.