IN the symbolism of the American West, the wolf holds a singular position.
To its detractors, it is the Saddam Hussein of the animal kingdom - a rapacious predator that will decimate livestock and game animals and threaten the region's economy.
To some supporters, it is a revered, almost cuddly creature that is key to restoring biological diversity and the balance of nature.
Thus it is perhaps not surprising that a federal plan to reintroduce the gray wolf to parts of the region has generated enough heat to redden a branding iron. The issue is again pitting rancher against environmentalist, hunter against bureaucrat, in a dispute that embodies many of the conflicts of the modern West.
"Opinions about the wolf run strong," says Wayne Brewster, a research administrator for the National Park Service here. "People either believe it is the prince of darkness or the consummate warm fuzzy."
The latest differences surround the government's most recent proposal for releasing wolves in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. A draft environmental impact statement issued by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in July calls for releasing 15 wolves in each of the two areas in late 1994.
The plan is to designate the wolves as "experimental." That means they would be protected in the park but could be killed if caught killing or wounding livestock outside its boundaries. Although wolves are an endangered species, federal officials say the experimental designation will allow greater flexibility in management - giving ranchers some recourse without jeopardizing the animal's recovery.
Others don't think the plan is so saddle smooth. Though some environmental groups support the proposal, others would like to see the animals remain under the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which means problem wolves would be dealt with by federal wildlife managers.
"We don't want to have private ranchers or sportsmen shooting wolves," says Bob Ekey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group.
Ranchers have their own beefs. They want more control over wolves that prey on cattle and sheep. Under the draft plan, ranchers could "harass" wolves that go near livestock. They could also kill a wolf in the act of attacking their cattle, though they would have to provide fresh evidence that their animals were wounded by the predators. "By then it's too late," says Bob Budd of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. "Wolves don't generally come down and punch a clock and say, 'OK, we are going to kill you r cows now.' "
These and other issues will be thrashed out in a serious of public hearings between now and October. The sessions will likely be lively, as the issue has been for more than a decade.
Legends and myths about the gray wolf have circulated since the time of the Indians, who feared this master of the ambush but who also monitored its movements to trace the migrations of game.
Federal officials have received more than 45,000 comments from people in 50 states about the project. Economists estimate that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone will eventually result in $7 million to $10 million a year in increased visitation - more than offsetting the $6 million the recovery project is expected to cost.
Ranchers, farmers, and some big-game hunters, though, view the program as one more intrusion of the federal government in their lives. They are concerned that efforts to protect the wolf will eventually lead to limits on timbering, mining, and other public land use - even though the draft plan calls for no such restrictions.
"I'll be an environmentalist until the day I die but that is one critter that won't get my help," says Jack Turnell, a rancher in Meeteetse, Wyo., south of Cody.
For conservationists, the emotions run equally deep. They are usually fighting to preserve nature but in this case are trying to see a part of natural history restored. The gray wolf is the only missing member of Yellowstone's animal kingdom. It will play a part in thinning and dispersing herds of elk, deer, and other animals.
"Yellowstone is the only place in the lower 48 states where we will have the full complement of wildlife species that were originally there," says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife.
The last wolves were eradicated from the park around 1930 under a federal program that sanctioned the killing of predators.
In the continental United States, researchers estimate that fewer than 2,000 remain of an animal that once roamed from the Arctic to Mexico City. The biggest population is in Minnesota, though packs also exist in Wisconsin, Michigan, and western Montana. Canada has 40,000 to 50,000 gray wolves.
Before any are reintroduced here and in Idaho, the government must first determine if wolves already exist in the areas - the source of some controversy. Some environmentalists argue that they do, which would preclude the government from using the experimental designation.
Federal officials, however, contend that while there are lone wolves in Wyoming and Idaho, there is no proof of breeding pairs. Their plan is to build up to a stable population of about 100 wolves by 2002.
With that many stealthy predators in the wild, there would be killings. The draft environmental- impact statement estimates that a recovered wolf population in Yellowstone will result in an average of 19 cattle and 68 sheep being taken each year. The wolves would also reduce elk populations 5 to 30 percent, deer 3 to 19 percent, moose 7 to 13 percent, and bison up to 15 percent.
"On an industrywide basis, the wolf predations are going to be very low," Mr. Brewster says.
Such statements don't reassure ranchers, who believe the losses will be much higher. Though a private fund exists to reimburse ranchers for lost stock, some want the guarantee of federal dollars.
Mr. Turnell, whose mountain cabin was recently ransacked by another protected animal, the grizzly bear, sums it up this way: "All you are doing is introducing a headache just because somebody wants to hear a howl in the night."