TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is strongly defending its proposal to drop federal protection for gray wolves across most of the Lower 48 states ahead of a series of public hearings on the plan.

The agency in June called for dropping the wolf from the endangered list everywhere except in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, where a subspecies called the Mexican wolf is struggling for survival. Agency director Dan Ashe said Monday that the wolf's recovery in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies is one of the greatest conservation successes ever.

He said the species is no longer in danger of dying out. But some environmentalists and scientists say it's too soon to drop federal protections. The first public hearing was Monday in Washington, D.C.