Facing pressure from ranchers, sportsmen and Western politicians, the Obama administration Wednesday published its final rule to remove federal endangered-species protections for the gray wolf. The change will allow states to set their own policies for managing wolf numbers.

According to an Associated Press article, there currently are about 5,500 gray wolves in the lower-48 states, concentrated in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions.

Also according to the AP, Western lawmakers attached a rider to the federal budget bill calling for delisting of the wolf in those states and blocking legal challenges. As a result, protections for about 1,300 wolves in the Northern Rockies will be lifted Thursday when the government posts notice of the change in the Federal Register. About 4,200 wolves in the Great Lakes region would lose protections following a public comment period.

Naturally, the decision will draw praise from livestock producers and sportsmen, and opposition from environmental groups. Environmental and wildlife groups see recovery of wolf populations, which had become virtually extinct in the lower-48 states, as a great success story. Federal officials reintroduced the species to in the Yellowstone area of Montana and Wyoming in the early 1990s, and the wolves quickly established and began expanding their range. In the upper Midwest, wolves migrating south from Canada augmented small remnant populations, and numbers have been growing significantly.

Outdoor Life magazine recently ran a “State of the Wolf” article and slide show on its Web site, breaking down state-by-state wolf numbers and trends.

In the Northern Rockies region, Idaho has about 700 wolves, Montana 560, and Wyoming 350. Surrounding states including Colorado, Utah, Washington and Oregon have seen some wolves moving in from the core area.

Montana and Idaho already have planned limited wolf hunts for this fall to reduce numbers significantly, bringing populations closer to their targeted management goals. One exception is Wyoming where, for now, federal protections remain. That's because the state’s management plan – which allows wolves to be killed on sight – does not satisfy federal regulators.

Minnesota has the largest population of wolves in the lower 48 states, with about 3,000.

Wolves in the Upper Midwest region have not garnered as much attention from the livestock industry as those in the West, because most have been concentrated in northern, forested areas, where livestock numbers are low. That has been changing in recent years, though, as the wolves move south into more agricultural areas. Wisconsin has an estimated 825 wolves, well above the state’s management goal of 350. Michigan has about 500 wolves, almost exclusively in the Northern Peninsula, where livestock numbers are relatively low. A few, however, have turned up in the rest of the state. Occasional wolves turn up in Illinois, probably migrants from Wisconsin, and last fall a hunter in Missouri killed a wolf he mistook for a coyote.

To submit comments on the rule, visit the federal government’s regulations Web site, and follow instructions for Docket Number FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029