WILD, furry animals with big teeth have always been a source of emotional conflict for humans.
We go to great lengths to reduce their numbers on behalf of farmers and ranchers. Yet, having nearly wiped out some species, we spend millions to ''reintroduce'' them to their original habitat.
Today this debate over ''charismatic megafauna,'' as some call them, is raging across the West.
Wolves captured in Canada are being released by federal agents into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park under a plan challenged by environmentalists as well as cattle and sheep interests.
The United States government agency charged with controlling coyotes and other predators is trying to polish its image as it fends off attacks from animal-rights groups. And as the demographics and cultural values of the region shift, voters in the West increasingly are passing measures limiting traditional methods of hunting large animals.
''Popular wisdom views animals in general and predators in particular differently today,'' natural-resource economist Randal O`Toole observed in a recent study of the federal Animal Damage Control program. ''The idea of 'eradicating' any species seems abhorrent. Where predators were once considered pests, they are now thought of as a natural and even essential part of the ecosystem.''
Recent elections indicate a change in public perception as well.
Oregonians voted last November to ban the hunting of bears with bait and the hunting of bears and cougars with hounds. In Arizona, voters approved a measure outlawing lethal trapping on public lands, a measure they had rejected just two years earlier.
Californians banned cougar hunting in 1990. In 1992, Coloradans voted against spring, bait, and hound hunting of bears.
''These are not a fluke,'' says Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal-protection group. ''They indicate that many existing wildlife policies are profoundly out of touch with prevailing public sentiment.''
Westerners traditionally saw predators and other native wildlife as ''varmints,'' competitors for productive range and forest lands.
The federal government investigated the problem in the 1880s. In 1931, the Animal Damage Control Act was passed to ''promulgate the best methods of eradication, suppression, or bringing under control mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, and other animals injurious to agricultureand to conduct campaigns for the destruction or control of such animals.''
With poisons, traps, snares, and guns, Animal Damage Control (ADC) agents have done just that. In 1992, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (of which ADC is a part), some 2.2 million animals were killed.
Most of these were birds considered pests, but the list includes 231 black bears, 1,243 bobcats, 114 wolves, and a record 97,966 coyotes.
ADC officials cite the economic losses due to such animals, especially coyotes, as a prime justification for their work. Most recent USDA figures document $27 million in sheep and goats and $41 million in cattle lost annually to predators.
Critics say the ADC program mostly amounts to a subsidy benefiting a small number of ranchers and farmers, and they abhor the killing methods.
ADC uses poisons, including sodium-cyanide pellets exploded into an animal's mouth and nostrils. Some animals are shot from aircraft.
Others are caught in traps and snares where they may suffer for lengthy periods before dying. ''Denning'' involves digging or smoking animals out of holes in the ground and clubbing them to death.
These days, ADC officials stress how ''the program is reinventing itself,'' as one put it. They emphasize other methods of controlling damage-causing wildlife, such as noise makers, guard dogs, electric fences, bad-tasting repellents, and contraceptive drugs placed in bait.
''There's a paradigm shift from predator control to balancing human and wildlife needs,'' says Robin Porter, ADC legislative and public-affairs specialist. Still, she says, ''lethal control is necessary in a lot of cases,'' especially those involving rabid animals.
GROUPS such as Wildlife Damage Review in Tucson, Ariz., and the Predator Project in Bozeman, Mont., want to shut down the federal ADC program altogether.
One reason is that some 20 percent of the animals killed in ADC traps or snares are ''nontarget'' animals, including pets, livestock, and endangered species.
In August, a gray wolf died in a leg-hold trap set for coyotes on a ranch north of Helena, Mont. Just before that, another wolf survived an accidental trapping outside Butte, Mont. It was later released.
What these incidents also illustrate, says Tom Skeele of the Predator Project, is somewolves are migrating from Canada back into the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming on their own. And that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with carrying out the recovery plan for wolves under the Endangered Species Act, needs to know more about where these ''dispersing wolves'' are now trying to find mates and establish packs.
''It would be fair to say that the occupied gray-wolf range in Montana encompasses an area both very dynamic and very hard to pinpoint,'' Mr. Skeele said in a recent letter to government officials.
''Recent events have proven that the [Fish and Wildlife] Service's definition of 'occupied gray wolf range' falls short of providing gray wolves with adequate protection from incidental harm or death by certain ADC activities.''
The recent highly publicized release of captured wolves illustrates the continuing conflict between animal predators and humans. The plan is to release 30 wolves a year into Idaho and Yellowstone over the next 5 years. Survivors are expected to form packs and reproduce to the point where the wolf can be removed from the endangered species list.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has sued the Fish and Wildlife Service on the grounds that the reintroduction ''is not in the best interests of those who produce food and fiber in that area.''
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund is objecting to the provision designating the Idaho wolves as ''experimental non-essential'' -- which means that they can be shot if they threaten livestock. Environmentalists want the newcomer wolves to have full Endangered Species Act protection.
Predator advocates are exploring unique ways to protect them. Soon to be marketed is clothing labeled ''Predator Friendly Wool,'' which comes from ranches where no coyotes have been killed during the prior year.
And for several years, Defenders of Wildlife has had a $100,000 ''wolf compensation fund'' that reimburses ranchers the fair market value of livestock lost to wolves. But there hasn't been much call for payment, which indicates to some that wolves aren't that big a threat to cattle and sheep. Only about 20 ranchers have been paid a total of $17,000.
Meanwhile, the conflict over predators continues. A state lawmaker in Wyoming has proposed a $500 bounty on wolves that cross the Yellowstone boundary onto ranch land, and the Montana Legislature is considering a resolution to get back at urban environmentalists by introducing wolves into New York's Central Park.
But Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen says that bringing the 1100 wolves back ''will go down in the annals of wildlife conservation. More important, it will be an emotional event for people everywhere who simply want to know that the howl of the wolf has returned to Yellowstone and that the 'wild' has returned to the West.''