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Between the lines of a press release: Gray wolves could lose federal protection

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The passing reference in a draft statement on an unrelated topic would have been easy miss. But Billings, Montana, correspondent Matthew Brown instantly recognized its significance – the U.S. government was planning to lift protections for gray wolves, an action that would reignite the emotional debate over the predators’ resurgence.

Gray wolves have been classified as a threatened species for decades in most of the U.S. after they were nearly wiped out by people and the loss of their habitat. Their rebound has drawn rage from ranchers whose livestock are killed by the predators.

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A gray wolf stands at the Osborne Nature Wildlife Center south of Elkader, Iowa, April 11, 2018. – Dave Kettering / (Dubuque) Telegraph Herald via AP

Brown was pursuing an unrelated story about sage grouse when he came across the draft Interior Department press release. It mentioned remarks that Acting Secretary David Bernhardt planned to make the next day at a wildlife conference in Denver: Gray wolves had recovered across the Lower 48 states.

Brown recognized the implication of that one sentence, and teamed up with fellow environmental beat team writer John Flesher of Traverse City, Michigan, to begin a race against the clock. Brown and Flesher began working their sources and preparing a story that night.

The next morning they scrambled to break the news before Bernhardt took the stage at the closed-press wildlife conference. Finally a source confirmed: Protections for wolves were again in the agency’s crosshairs, and a formal proposal to strip the species of their remaining endangered species protections was to be published in coming days in the Federal Register.

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Darlene Baker, of Sammamish, Wash., holds a photo of a wolf as she takes part in a protest in Seattle, March 7, 2019, against a proposal by the Trump administration to lift protections for gray wolves. – AP Photo / Ted S. Warren

The APNewsAlert moved at 8:45 a.m.,telling the wildlife world about the development a full 15 minutes before Bernhardt was scheduled to speak.

Other news outlets were forced to follow in AP’s wake,posting their own stories that relied on a statement put out by Interior. By the time that statement was released, Brown and Flesher were putting the finishing touches on their story.

For seizing on a stray reference on birds and reporting it out into a significant APNewsBreak on wolves, Brown and Flesher win this week’s Best of the States.

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