BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move certain to re-ignite the legal battle over a predator that's rebounding in some regions but absent in others.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was expected to announce the proposal during a Wednesday speech before a wildlife conference in Denver.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Gavin Shire tells the Associated Press the proposal is based on wolves successfully recovering from widespread extermination over the last century.

The wolves received endangered species protections in 1975 and there are now more than 5,000 in the contiguous U.S.

Most are in the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies regions.

Protections for Northern Rockies states' wolves were lifted in 2011 and hundreds are now killed annually by hunters.

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