Wolves have long fascinated humans. There is something primitive, even primeval, about this animal symbolizing power and intelligence, beauty and pure instinct.
But humanity as the dominant species still seems unsure of how to live with wolves, and this shows in the conflicted way we choose to symbolize them. Groups of torpedo-laden German submarines, bound to destroy unarmed Allied shipping in World War II, we called ``wolf packs.'' The newest US attack sub is the ``Seawolf.''
Yet we danced with them vicariously in a highly successful film. Popular conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote sadly of ``a fierce green fire'' that went out of the eyes of a dying wolf shot by hunters. And in northern California last month, some members of the local symphony refused to play Prokofiev's ``Peter and the Wolf'' because of the way the musical classic portrays the animal.
Over the years, official policy regarding wolves has been changing. By the 1930s, wolves had been virtually wiped out of the contiguous 48 states by bounty hunters working on behalf of cattle and sheep ranchers. And in Alaska (the only state where wolves aren't listed as endangered), government officials until recently killed some of the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 wolf population each year so that hunters could have more moose and caribou to shoot.
But a few days ago, Alaska's new governor, Tony Knowles (D), ordered a halt to the state's wolf-control program pending an investigation. This was prompted by a widely broadcast graphic videotape showing wolves slowly dying in traps meant to kill quickly.
``I was both disturbed and disgusted by what I saw,'' Governor Knowles said. ``No animal should be treated that way.''
This follows new regulations banning wolf hunting using aircraft on national wildlife refuges in Alaska. (Hunters were supposed to land before shooting but frequently fired from the air or ran the animals to exhaustion, according to the Humane Society of the United States.)
For years, environmental activists and government scientists have worked on a plan to reintroduce wolves to the northern Rockies of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. The idea is to bring small groups down from Alberta and British Columbia, carefully tracking their movements and progress until populations of several hundred have been established.
Most publicity has focused on the reintroduction plan for Yellowstone National Park, which is of particular interest since the wolf is the only native species that no longer lives in this oldest of national parks.
In a compromise aimed at ranchers, these wolves are to be designated a ``non-essential experimental population,'' which means they can be killed if they attack livestock. This shouldn't be much of a problem, however. Wolves in Canada and Minnesota account for a tiny fraction of livestock losses. Defenders of Wildlife has a $100,000 fund to compensate ranchers for losses to wolves, but in seven years just $15,000 has been paid out to 17 ranchers.
It's unclear how much the reintroduction program will cost. The official price tag is about $7 million, but one study shows the economic benefit through increased tourism to be some $19 million.
The essential question is: Why bother? Why not just acknowledge that a competing predator lost out to humans as the frontier gave way to commercial ranching, trophy hunting, and other development? No one cares as much about declining species that aren't ``charismatic megafauna'' (say, the horned toad), so why should such a big deal be made of wolves?
Only part of the answer is biological. The goal should always be to keep things in (or return them to) as natural a state as possible. But more significant in this age is our attitude toward the rest of creation. Which is why it's as important to do this for ourselves as for the wolf.