GRAY wolves may soon be loping into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, with some help from the Department of the Interior. According to the department's ``Final Environmental Impact Statement,'' the endangered animals may bring more tourist business along with them.
Earlier this month, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service released its proposed plan to move wolves back into these areas. While FWS estimates economic losses to the area to be fairly low, it projects that increased visitor spending in the Yellowstone area could add as much as $23 million a year.
Most people would not change their vacation plans because of the wolves, says Ed Bangs, FWS gray wolf project leader. But FWS anticipates that the existing tourist base - 14.5 million annual visitors - may stay in the park just a few hours longer because of the wolves. The extra dollars spent could add up to millions, even ``if everybody just bought an extra ice cream standing in the sun looking for a wolf,'' Mr. Bangs says.
Yellowstone National Park's native wolf population was eliminated in the 1920s as part of a plan to eradicate the area of predators. Under the FWS plan, which is likely to be approved this month, 10 pairs of wolves a year would be reintroduced for three successive years to both Yellowstone and central Idaho. The cost for personnel, relocating the animals, and tracking is estimated at $6.7 million to complete the program by 2002.
Knowing that the opportunity exists to spot a wolf ``adds to your experience,'' Bangs says. From surveys, FWS estimates wolves' ``existence value'' in the park at $8.3 million. People were asked what the wolves' presence was worth to them personally. Though respondents quoted higher figures, FWS says that if actual donations were collected, they would total about 23 percent of the quoted dollars, to equal $8.3 million.
The extra tourist dollars spent will not necessarily equate with a sighting, however. Wolves are ``pretty elusive,'' says Jack Oelfke, natural resource management specialist at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, a well-known haven for wolves. The 200-square-mile park is home to about 15 gray wolves, a population that has declined since a peak of 50 wolves in 1980.
``Most folks realize there's not a good chance of seeing [the wolves],'' Mr. Oelfke says. Isle Royale's park personnel usually only see them in the winter from a plane - but Oelfke says the wolves are still a ``major draw.''
``Maybe there's some attraction to being in a place where there are wolves just over the ridge or just a mile away,'' Oelfke says.
Yellowstone's already burgeoning $4.2 billion local economy hardly needs a boost from tourism. Ice cream buying visitors aside, the gray wolf comeback could affect local livestock and hunting. FWS estimates the loss of only 19 cattle (10 in Idaho) and 68 sheep (57 in Idaho) a year at costs between $2,000 to $30,000 - numbers others say are ``ridiculously low.''
``There's really no honest economics behind those estimates,'' says James Streeter, policy director of the National Wilderness Institute in Washington. The cost of the program does not fully account for the cost it imposes on the economy of the area, Mr. Streeter says. Because of past government debacles involving endangered species, such as the spotted owl and the Florida scrub jay (whose recovery program was underestimated by $20 million, according to a NWI report), the public should be wary of cost estimates, Streeter says.
But proponents of reintroduction argue that placing wolves in areas such as Yellowstone will provide a habitat with fewer conflicts with people and livestock - and less potential for negative economic impacts.
The situation is unlikely to escalate to one of spotted owl proportions because the wolf habitat is already intact, says Hank Fischer, the northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Some ranchers complain that there is no federal compensation plan for livestock killed by wolves, and that wolf attacks are difficult to prove because evidence is often not immediately apparent on a large ranch. ``Wolves are very smart,'' says Bill Myers of the National Cattlemen's Association in Washington. ``You're very unlikely to see a wolf killing livestock.''
The concern that wolves will kill livestock is overstated, Mr. Fischer says. Wolves are usually trained by their parents to prey on deer, elk, and moose, rather than livestock, he says.
Fischer points to northwestern Montana, where gray wolves have made a natural recovery with little impact on both land use and livestock. Over seven years, the organization has only paid out $16,000 to ranchers through a compensation program.
``I think it's fear of the unknown,'' he says.