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CHEYENNE — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday he’s “more optimistic” than ever that Wyoming and federal officials can reach an agreement to remove wolves in the state from the federal endangered species list.

Meanwhile, Gov. Matt Mead, who discussed the issue with Salazar behind closed doors Tuesday, said there’s “a sense of urgency” to strike a deal before a Montana judge approves a settlement that would lift protection for wolves in Montana and Idaho and allow hunting.

Since being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, wolf populations in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have grown to about 1,700. Wyoming had about 320 wolves at the end of 2009, with 224 of those outside the park.

Federal wildlife officials have said they want to give control over wolves back to individual states, but disputes over what the states’ management plans should look like have resulted in lengthy court battles.

In November, a federal judge in Wyoming ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t justified in rejecting Wyoming’s wolf management plan, which would allow unregulated killing of the animals over all but the northwest part of the state.

Mead’s administration, which backs the state’s proposed management plan, has been negotiating with Fish and Wildlife officials since late January to hammer out a compromise.

Mead and state officials briefed Salazar on the wolf negotiations privately Tuesday. Though Mead and Salazar have talked about the issue before, it was the first time Salazar got hear at length about where negotiations stand, said Mead spokesman Renny MacKay.

No substantial breakthroughs were reached during the meeting, MacKay said, adding that both sides agreed it was worth continuing negotiations.

“We’re having some very productive dialogue,” Salazar said at a media conference before the meeting. “I’m more optimistic today than I frankly have ever been that we can find a resolution.”

No new talks between Wyoming and Fish and Wildlife officials are yet scheduled, MacKay said. Mead, he said, is talking with “stakeholders” — agricultural groups, hunters’ organizations, conservation groups and local officials — to see what they would be willing to give up in a compromise deal.

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Mead, talking with reporters before the meeting, said it was important to reach a deal soon in the wake of a settlement reached Friday in a different lawsuit over wolves in Montana.

The proposed agreement, between the U.S. Department of the Interior and 10 conservation groups that are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, would at least temporarily keep wolves on the endangered species list in four states where they are considered most vulnerable: Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Wolves in Idaho and Montana would be put under state control.

It also calls for Fish and Wildlife to set up a scientific panel to re-examine wolf recovery goals calling for a minimum 300 wolves in the region — a population size wildlife advocates criticized as inadequate.

The proposed agreement must now be approved by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Mont. That could be difficult, as four other conservation groups that filed the lawsuit didn’t agree to the settlement.

But Mead said if those complications are resolved before Wyoming reaches an agreement of its own with the federal government, the state would be pushed to accept a deal that would keep its wolves under federal protection for the near future.

“If Judge Molloy accepts it and they figure out how to deal with those four plaintiffs,” Mead said, “I suspect Idaho and Montana will be putting some amount of pressure on Wyoming to say, ‘Hey, get on board.’”

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Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at 307-632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jpelzer.

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