More than half a decade after Canadian wolves were reintroduced into the American Wild West, their nightly howls still spook ranchers, fearing for their livestock.
Despite killing at least 40 farm animals in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming over the past year, these predators of fairytale legend have been protected from the farmer's rifle by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Now, however, there is a growing backlash against those restrictions in some corners of the rural West. Politicians and farmers have successfully pressured the US Fish and Wildlife Service to hunt down several packs of wolves in recent weeks.
But for conservationists Â- who view the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park and central Idaho as a major victory in the campaign to restore wild ecosystems Â- there's concern that they are witnessing a resurrection of a cultural enmity that doomed lobos to annihilation in the region half a century ago. They're worried that a handful of states are pushing hard to have the West's population of 550 wolves removed from protected status. Already, in Boise, Idaho, the state legislature has passed a controversial law that gives ranchers the right to shoot any wolf the moment it sets foot on private property Â- regardless of whether it actually menaces livestock.
More immediately, environmentalists are vexed by a recent spate of government-sponsored wolf killings.
Â Earlier this month, federal wildlife sharpshooters destroyed an entire wolf pack in Idaho Â- condemned for preying on four farm animals, including a sheep that had been a young girl's 4-H project.
Â In southern Montana near Yellowstone National Park last week, four members of the Sheep Mountain pack were put down by biologists after wolves ran through a horse pasture and were suspected of eating a cow.
Â In the northwest corner of the state, members of the Ninemile pack were destroyed after llamas were killed.
Yet by far the biggest debate erupted two weekends ago, when all 10 wolves from the Whitehawk pack, which inhabited forests along the East Fork of the Salmon River near Stanley, were destroyed.
Killing wolves that develop a taste for livestock is part of an agreement the federal government struck with agrarians when wolves were reintroduced from Canada in the mid 1990s, says Ed Bangs, who oversees wolf management in the West for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"I find it remarkable that given how many wolves and cattle and sheep we have out that there isn't more predation," Mr. Bangs says. "Wolves are not decimating the livestock industry nor are they driving any ranchers out of business."
Although the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife has paid out more than $200,000 compensating ranchers for losses, cattlemen say they don't raise livestock to be eaten by wolves. And Steve Pilcher, executive director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said many ranchers still resent the government reintroducing wolves at all.
Mr. Bangs, one of the federal managers who ordered the killing of the Whitehawk pack, says he knew the complete elimination of the pack would cause an outcry, but not one that would result in hundreds of e-mails from angry environmentalists from as far away as Europe. However, he justifies his actions on the rationale that they prevented wolves from inflicting serious economic harm on ranchers Â- and before the predators could teach the behavior to other pack members. He predicts that as many as 50 wolves could be killed this year to prevent problems.
"I don't like to see dead wolves, but another way to look at this is that our ability to have some flexibility in killing wolves isn't an example of failure," he says. "Rather, I view it as evidence that wolf recovery has been a success."
But Ralph Maughan, a political scientist based in Pocatello, Idaho, who is vice president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation, says wolves are being overcontrolled.
"Idaho is a classic example," he says. "Even though the number of [predations] on livestock and pets has actually gone down for the last three years, wolves have been killed needlessly in the last few weeks and I wonder where this trend is leading us."
Federal agencies spent nearly $15,000 hunting down and destroying the radio-collared Whitehawk wolves, though the livestock the wolves killed were worth only hundreds of dollars and ranchers are compensated for the losses.
In recent years, the Wolf Recovery Foundation, has donated several wolf collars, equipped with radio transceivers to help government biologists track wolves. But, in protest of the recent Whitehawk killings, the group says it will no longer donate collars for wolves outside Yellowstone. "We gave those collars with the understanding they would be used to promote conservation," Maughan says. "Those collars were used as tools for eradication."