Wolf Killings Reveal Passions Raised by Their Return

Replacing a missing link in the great chain of nature hasn't been universally welcomed

THE gray wolf - restored this year to the wilds of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming - has entered a new phase in its long and symbolic history. It joins the Northern Spotted Owl, the Snail Darter, the Kangaroo Rat, and the Pacific Salmon as a legally protected endangered species - and as a prop for political theater.

The drama began at the turn of the century, when Western states implored the federal government to help them eradicate the predator from the range country. The wild game that wolves had lived with for centuries was displaced by cattle and sheep; the buffalo was extirpated, carcasses left out, laced with cyanide, as bait and a deathtrap for wolves. By the 1930s the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had succeeded in eliminating them.

But within a few years, biologists were seeing the folly of such widespread destruction in the food chain. Bison were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Deer and elk flourished to huge surpluses without predators.

Naturalist Aldo Leopold, a former USFWS wolf hunter, in 1944 asked "The modern question: Are we really better off without wolves?" and answered "Probably every reasonable ecologist will agree that some of them should [live] in the larger national parks and wilderness areas; for instance, the Yellowstone and its adjacent national forests."

The stage thus set, Congress wrote into law the Endangered Species Act in 1966, naming the wolf as one such missing link in the great chain of nature. The act was made more assertive in the 1970s, and by 1991 Congress started making discrete plans to implement wolf recovery in the areas naturalist Leopold suggested.

Under the act, a group of 29 wolves were captured in Alberta last fall and readied for transport to the wilderness. Some individuals and farm groups filed for injunctions to stop the process; their suits were denied in January. Writing for the US District Court in Wyoming, Judge William Downes concluded, "Expressions of fear and trepidation, however genuine, cannot be accepted as proof of immediate and irreparable harm." The wolves were released. By April, two were dead.

The Idaho killing took place at Eugene Hussey's ranch at Iron Creek, on Super Bowl Sunday, and was about as even a contest. Tom Riley, USFWS supervisor, and two field agents went, warrant in hand, to the scene to investigate. Mr. Hussey showed up, began throwing rocks and, "espousing antigovernment rhetoric," ordered them off his place. Within a few minutes, though, they'd calmed down and were talking in a friendly manner.

Both the warrant and the participation of local law enforcement were optional, Mr. Riley said, but he called Lemhi County Sheriff Brett Barsalou on the radio for assistance anyway. When the sheriff arrived, though, he got into "a chest-bumping contest" with a field agent, told Riley his warrant was no good, and ordered them off the ranch. Riley stood his ground; Sheriff Barsalou then left, taking Hussey with him, threatening to execute "Plan B." According to a bystander, Plan B was to call out "the militia" and take care of the federal agents. On hearing that, Riley and his men left.

Mr. Barsalou was widely quoted as saying the agents were "heavy-handed" and used "excessive force," leading Idaho Reps. Helen Chenoweth (R) and Michael Crapo (R) to call hearings on the altercation in Congress March 30. Ms. Chenoweth especially has thrown down the gauntlet against federal agencies; in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, though, she and others have toned down their rhetoric.

The second killing, of a 120-pound wolf from Yellowstone Park, in Red Lodge, Mont., was marked by "extraordinary" cooperation between state, local, and federal investigators, according to Sherry Matteucci, US attorney for Montana. Yet Ed Bangs, the USFWS wolf project leader, complained that the wolf's mate, left alone, was unsafe with "goons and guns running around."

On May 16, Chad McKittrick of Red Lodge, was arrested for the killing. He confessed that he'd shot the wolf, named Aurora, from the seat of his pickup truck on April 24. Mr. McKittrick said that when he saw the name inscribed on the animal's radio-tracking collar, he felt sorry. He liked the name Aurora.

McKittrick (who was serving probation on a 1991 conviction for threatening a sheriff's deputy with a firearm) has espoused no overarching antigovernment sentiment. Nor has the poacher averred that the wolf was a symbol, or a threat to his lifestyle.

As long as fear and trepidation are part of our ecology, endangered species - and federal employees acting in the service of the people - will continue to be cast in shadowy, symbolic roles. Wolf killings don't prove government lands are overrun by jack-booted thugs or that there is a concerted revolt against the presence of wolves.

But talking about the issues involved is not just crying wolf.

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