OVER howls of human protest, wolves may soon return to Yellowstone National Park. The Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf roamed Yellowstone for at least 1,000 years before it was hunted out in the 1920s as an undesirable predator.
Now, the House and Senate appropriations committees are considering a recommendation to reintroduce this subspecies of gray wolf, listed as an endangered species, into Yellowstone.
The gray wolf already has reclaimed a foothold in northwestern Montana in Glacier National Park, having migrated down from Canada where 50,000 wolves inhabit Canadian parklands. Wolves may be reentering central Idaho as well.
The Wolf Management Committee, created by Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan, includes members from the fish and game agencies of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, the Park Service, the Forest Service, livestock and hunting interests, and two conservationist groups.
Under the committee's proposal, once full recovery of the species is achieved in Yellowstone, Glacier, and central Idaho, gray wolves would be removed from the endangered species list, the three states would have full management authority outside of national park borders, and wolves could be hunted.
Until full recovery (10 pairs producing 10 packs), ranchers would receive compensation for loss or injury of livestock, regulated public shooting and the use of poisons near wolf dens would be prohibited, and in places where state wildlife departments are trying to reintroduce rare species, wolves would be trapped and relocated. The US Department of Agriculture would finance the project.
The plan, however, will not work without the cooperation of local citizens in the three states around Yellowstone, and wolves are receiving very mixed reviews.
Congressman Ron Marlenee (R) of Montana has been an outspoken critic of wolf relocation in Yellowstone. ``There is no method of control we can establish that will ensure that the wolf will not devastate other wildlife populations and whole segments of industry in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Local fears run deep that federal authorities cannot be trusted to keep the wolf population under control, that wolves will threaten livestock, and that hunting - an important industry in all three states - might be hampered.
``Of the 1,000 or so people who attended the public hearings, the vast majority don't want the wolves reintroduced,'' says committee member K. L. Cool of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. ``We believe it will be exceptionally expensive to manage the wolves.''
``Historically, there is no question but that the wolves created problems,'' says committee member George Bennett, a member of the Gem State Hunters Association. ``I can anticipate, based on current experiences in Canada and Minnesota, a return of those problems when the animals return.''
Yellowstone chief biologist John Varley disagrees, citing a report submitted to Congress in 1989 containing a detailed analysis of 10 studies on wolves.
``All these studies [suggest] that hunting interests are not going to be significantly affected because the animals the wolves prey upon spend year round in Yellowstone,'' Dr. Varley says. ``Half the animals in Yellowstone are never subjected to hunting, the other half go down to forest land'' where hunting is permitted.
Then, too, wolves tend to take the old, sick, or the very young among the elk, mule-deer, and moose which form their prey-base, Varley says.
Committee members Hank Fischer, Thomas Dougherty, and Galen Buterbaugh all agree that data from Minnesota and Canada suggest that wolves can be managed quite effectively.
Zealous hunting, cattle
Mr. Fischer says that wolves were a problem in the Northwest between 1890 and 1930 because unrestrained market hunting reduced ungulate herds nearly to extinction. At the same time the cattle industry expanded considerably. Wolves had little choice but to prey upon cattle.
But Fischer, Mr. Dougherty, Varley, and wolf expert Rolf Peterson of Michigan Technological University contend that wolves prefer the prey they are weaned on by their parents.
There is not one authenticated case of a healthy wolf harming a human in the US. Dr. Peterson says the wolf population of Minnesota is 1,700, and wolves live in forests next to pastures and leave the cattle alone.
Varley believes that livestock depredation outside of the park, even after 20 years of wolf recovery, will not amount to much more than four cows and a dozen sheep a year. At present, Yellowstone harbors 50,500 elk, 11,370 moose, 116,730 mule deer, and 6,050 big horn sheep; the wolf's prey-base in there is secure.
Only two of the 10 committee members contest the reintroduction plan. Dougherty of the National Wildlife Federation and Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife say it violates the existing protections of the ESA.
A provision of the plan would allow ranchers to shoot wolves caught killing or harassing livestock. ``Private livestock holders would be allowed to kill wolves almost at their discretion,'' says Fischer. Under the ESA, he says, the experimental, nonessential designation lifts the stiffer restrictions of the endangered species status to help ease entrenched opposition to reintroduction of certain species. Animals found killing livestock can be legally shot if evidence of depredation can be documented. Bu t the committee's harassment goes too far beyond this regulation, he says.
``A great deal of education is necessary to convince people they can live in harmony with the wolf,'' says Dougherty. ``But the recommendation goes beyond the bounds of propriety and sets a dangerous precedent.''
The other eight members, however, agree that the compromise proposal is the only way to secure local support for reintroduction of and ultimately protection for the wolves.
``The strongest reason to bring them back,'' says Varley, ``is that the gray wolves are the only animals missing from Yellowstone Park. If we restored the wolf to Yellowstone, Yellowstone would be the only place in the lower 48 states that would have all the fauna that were here when Christopher Columbus stepped ashore.''