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Plan to return gray wolves to Yellowstone rouses stiff opposition. Predators are only native species no longer in US park

After decades of silence, the call of the wild may echo once more across the canyons and crevasses of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. As a federal plan to bring the wolf back to Yellowstone nears completion, conservationists and wildlife biologists look forward to the day when the one missing link in the park's ecosystem will be restored.

``We've held the position for a long time that we'd like to see Rocky Mountain gray wolves back in Yellowstone,'' says John D. Varley, chief of research at the park. ``Of all the species that were once here, it's the only one still missing.''

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But the proposal has set off a hue and cry from ranchers on the park's periphery, who consider the wolf to be a vicious predator, threatened species or not.

``There's not many ranchers around here, if they saw a wolf, would let it pass,'' says Allyn O'Hair, whose family raises about 1,000 calves a year on a 10,000-acre ranch in Montana's Paradise Valley, about 60 miles north of Yellowstone. To people like the O'Hairs, whose ancestors settled this harsh frontier by overcoming hardship and conquering the wilderness, bringing back the wolves that they tried for years to eradicate is ``ridiculous.''

The wolf-recovery plan for Yellowstone, however, is by no means final. ``It's tremendously controversial,'' says Mr. Varley. ``It's a political hot potato,'' says another wildlife biologist.

The issue highlights a fundamental split between those who hold to the pioneer spirit and the growing number of people who see this region as an environmental treasure that needs to be preserved intact. (Threats to Yellowstone, Page 16.)

The final Yellowstone plan was expected to be signed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service more than a month ago, but the controversy surrounding wolves has lengthened the approval process, says FWS wildlife biologist Jane Roybal. The final plan is now expected to be sent to FWS director Frank Dunkle by the end of the month.

Gray wolves, which may have numbered as many as 40,000 at the coming of white man to the region, were virtually wiped out in the northern Rockies by 1945. First trappers, then ranchers, and finally the US government's policy of extermination almost doomed the wolf to extinction in this area. In 1973, the wolf was listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Since then there have been indications that wolves are beginning to reestablish themselves in Montana, crossing the Canadian border and moving down into Glacier National Park. Last year, for the first time in 50 years, gray wolves established a den in Glacier, producing a litter of seven pups, according to scientists in the federal Wolf Ecology Project, which monitors wolf activity in the area.

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Because the Glacier Park repopulation has occurred naturally, without the assistance of man, it has not generated the same storm of controversy as the Yellowstone proposal. Some wolf-recovery experts, in fact, say they believe the wolf would eventually repopulate Yellowstone as well.

The FWS draft plan for Yellowstone, however, says chances for natural repopulation are remote. Under its proposal, a breeding pair of wolves from Canada or Alaska would be brought into the park, then set free to establish a pack. Eventually, the Park Service would like to see wolves in the park number between 70 and 200.

Because of its abundant game, including elk and moose, Yellowstone is considered to be almost an ideal setting for the experiment. Even if the FWS signs off on the plan, however, it will be several years before wolves are free to roam Yellowstone. The new policy would require an environmental impact statement, addressing the objections of ranchers, hunters, recreationists, and others critics.

Seeking to head off the opposition of livestock owners, a national wildlife-conservation group last month took six Rocky Mountain ranchers to Minnesota to investigate that state's wolf-recovery program. ``I think we opened people's eyes to how small the livestock losses were [as a result of wolf activity],'' says Hank Fischer, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. ``For every 10,000 animals grazed [in the wolf-recovery zone in northern Minnesota], you lose 5 cows and 12 sheep to wolves.''

Ranchers ``may be willing to go along'' with the Yellowstone plan under certain conditions, says Bob Budd, executive vice-president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. But they will insist on an amendment to the Endangered Species Act allowing wolves to be controlled, or killed, if they range outside of the park and become troublesome.

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