WOLVES are the objects of an Alaskan debate that pits wildlife conservationists against tourist-industry interests and their chief champion, Gov. Walter Hickel.
Wolves have been creatures of folklore for centuries - as both heroes and villains. Few other wild creatures hold as much fascination for people, who often, and mistakenly, tend to see them as undomesticated dogs. This is not necessarily to the wolf's advantage.
Many tourists go to Alaska to witness the migration of herd animals - moose, caribou, and dall sheep - as well as grizzly bears. Some liken it to the migration of animals across East Africa's Serengeti plain.
Sportsmen go to the 49th state to hunt the herd animals. These and other tourist activities produce some $8 million annually for Alaska.
Governor Hickel and other backers of a plan to reduce the numbers of wolves say that the predators are seriously depleting the herds.
Under the plan, the state's wolf population of about 7,000 would be reduced by 300 or 400 annually. The policy already has been approved by the Alaska Board of Game.
But conservationists in Alaska and other states decry what they see as a major step backward. They point out that shooting Alaskan gray wolves to control their population was abandoned almost a decade ago.
The current plan involves shooting of wolves from airplanes by wildlife officials. But private citizens could join in by tracking wolves from the air and then shooting them on the ground. Both of these activities are banned under the federal Airborne Hunting Act, but an exception is made for state-approved wildlife control.
Critics of the plan argue that other causes account for the depletion of the herd animals. And experience indicates that, however well-intended, man's attempts to control nature's processes often result in more problems than solutions.
The wolves should not be slaughtered. The moose, caribou, and sheep would be better protected by reining in the hunters, despite the loss in dollars.