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The gray wolf population in Wisconsin is healthy enough that it no longer needs protection under the Federal List of Endangered Species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday.

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Though the state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp said she applauded the proposal, which would take gray wolves off the lists in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, local residents are skeptical.

"The problem is this has happened numerous times before," said Marlin Laidlaw of the town of Richfield, who serves as an elected Wood County representative to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an advisory branch of the DNR.

The FWS first proposed removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list in 1998 and again in 2004, 2007 and 2009. Each time the action was nullified or stopped by court rulings.

"I am cautiously optimistic, but I won't be surprised if there is a court challenge," Laidlaw said.

If wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list, it would allow the DNR to eliminate problem wolves.

Wolf numbers total more than 4,000 animals in the three states, according to the FWS.

Wisconsin's numbers were about 725 in 2010 and a new count is under way, according to the DNR, which has monitored the gray wolf population since 1979. The goal of the program was to maintain a population of about 350 wolves in the state.

Problems with individual wolves killing livestock, pets and hunting dogs have been reported, and lone wolves have been sighted in almost every county of the state.

"There were two of them back of my place after we had all that rain a while ago," said Laidlaw, who operates a sandpit on Highway 13. He used equipment to smooth the sandpit access roads before the rain. After the rainfall, he checked the roads for damage and saw the prints of two wolves.

"They were all over the place," said Laidlaw, adding he saw a lone wolf once north of his property near Highway 13 in 2010.

An experienced hunter and animal tracker, Laidlaw said wolf paw prints have unique features that distinguish them from other K-9s.

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