The Return of the Wolf

IN a real-life scene that conjures up images of the American film ``Dances With Wolves,'' United States and Canadian biologists began capturing gray wolves in Hinton, Alberta, this week for resettlement in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho. The program - which comes after more than 100 public hearings, $12 million in studies, and testimony from about 160,000 people - is controversial, to say the least.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Mountain States Legal Foundation have sued to stop the wolves' return, fearing that the predators will attack ranchers' cattle and sheep. The plan calls for placing 15 wolves in Yellowstone and 15 in the Frank Church Wilderness Area each year for the next three to five years. The first wolves will be released today. A federal judge in Wyoming decided not to halt the program earlier this month, but a trial is expected later in the year.

There are a number of factors working for the government and supporters of the wolf-release program. The judge in Wyoming based at least part of his ruling on evidence from Minnesota, where wolves living near dairy farms have shown that they prefer wild game to domestic animals. Biologists say the wolves will thrive on the deer, elk, and moose populations that are now at an all-time high in Yellowstone and in Idaho.

The government also has made concessions to the ranchers. The wolves have been deemed an ``experimental, nonessential population'' that won't get full protection under the Endangered Species Act. That means that ranchers can still harass or shoot wolves that threaten their livestock. In addition, an environmental group called Defenders of Wildlife has raised $100,000 to compensate any rancher who loses an animal to a wolf.

Some opponents of the wolf-release program say the issue goes beyond animals. They contend that it is an example of big government and big-city environmentalists trying to economically cripple rural America and gain control of the land. This argument overlooks the fact that, by the 1930s, the wolf populations in Idaho and Yellowstone were intentionally wiped out for the benefit of ranchers.

With the return of the wolves, Yellowstone will have within its borders every animal that was there when the park was founded in 1872. As one biologist involved in the project said: ``It was time.''

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