The better to see you with, my dear

I've only seen wild wolves once, but it was enough to raise my hackles. It happened on a crisp, early summer day in Yellowstone National Park a couple of years ago. As they loped through the greening meadows, the wolves - one gray and one black - seemed almost nonchalant. The tightly clustered elk ahead of them did not. With heads held high, they snorted and trotted nervously, bracing for the age-old ritual between hunter and hunted. That's when my neck hairs stood on end. I suddenly sensed what it was to be prey in wolf country.

A decade ago, neither I nor those elk would have known that chilling feeling. The wolves I saw were newly reintroduced by the federal government as part of a restoration initiative spurred by the Endangered Species Act. Similar efforts have taken place elsewhere in the American West in an attempt to bring the wolf back to places where it was shot and trapped to oblivion.

Recently, conservationists have even broached the idea of turning wolves loose in the Northeast. Some might scoff (or quake) at the idea of wolf packs roaming the heavily populated states of New England, but after reading the four essays in "The Return of the Wolf," it not only seems reasonable, but perhaps inevitable.

In an elegant opening essay, Bill McKibben lays out the reasons wolves could thrive in the Northeast: ample prey, recovering habitat, and growing public support. Most remarkable is the resurgence of the Eastern woodlands, which have rapidly reclaimed farms cleared little more than a century ago.

The wolf also stands a chance because, as Canadian wolf biologist John Theberge notes, it is a "plastic" species that can live in many habitats. The only requirement is an ample supply of hoofed protein - moose and deer, in the case of the Northeast.

Kristin DeBoer, director of the group RESTORE: The North Woods, describes how citizen support for wolf reintroduction has taken off since the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified the Northeast as a possible recovery area in 1992.

But these authors do more than cheerlead. They point out the many obstacles that lie in the way. A hidden one is interbreeding. Theberge notes that the Eastern timber wolf, unlike its Western counterpart, will interbreed with its smaller cousin, the coyote. Nobody knows if reintroduced wolves would drive out coyotes, as they have in Yellowstone, or join forces with them, mixing genes to create a new species.

The most dire threat to wolves, of course, remains people. A healthy wolf has never attacked a human, McKibben points out, but the cultural fear of wolves runs deep. As we have discovered with the still unsuccessful wolf reintroduction program in New Mexico and Arizona, it only takes a few bullets from a misguided rancher to mess up the best-laid plans. Already, New Hampshire has passed a law forbidding the reintroduction of wolves; anti-wolf activists are pushing Vermont and Maine to do the same.

As Rick Bass writes, efforts to conserve species such as the wolf are like glaciers: They start moving when they reach a critical mass. If the thoughtful and eloquent words of the dedicated conservationists who wrote this book carry the weight they should, we may now be at that point.

Paul Larmer is the senior editor of High Country News in Paonia, Colo.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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