By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge restored federal protections to wolves in Wyoming, at least temporarily, in a victory for wildlife conservationists that was sure to draw criticism from ranchers and hunters who see wolves as a threat to livestock and big-game animals.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead said the state would ask a higher court to block the judge's order and allow the state to keep its wolf management policies intact, including licensed hunting of the animals and rules permitting some to be shot on sight.

Wyoming assumed control over its wolves from the federal government in 2012 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that their numbers had rebounded sufficiently to justify taking them off the endangered species list.

The wolf population inside Wyoming at the time was estimated at 350 but has declined to about 300 animals since losing its protected status.

Environmental groups challenged the de-listing in court, saying the Obama administration violated the Endangered Species Act in ceding management of Wyoming wolves to a state plan that failed to ensure the animal's long-term survival.

In Tuesday's decision, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided with conservationists in finding that the Fish and Wildlife Service erred in accepting non-binding promises by the state for maintaining wolves at certain population levels.

The judge supported federal wildlife managers' underlying determination that wolves were no longer in danger of extinction in Wyoming but ruled that the animal be returned to protected federal status while proper state management plans are devised.

A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was reviewing the judge’s decision.

Wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the Lower 48 states before coming under Endangered Species Act protections in the 1970s.

U.S. wildlife managers re-introduced wolves to the wilds of the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s over objections from the cattle industry and sportsmen, and their numbers ultimately exceeded recovery goals set by the federal government. Latest estimates put the number at nearly 1,700 animals in the region.

In 2011 wolves were delisted through an unprecedented act of Congress in Idaho and Montana, where they have been subjected to liberal hunting and trapping seasons.

Wyoming's wolves had remained protected for another year during which state and federal officials negotiated a plan for transferring wolf management there.


(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ryan Woo)