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Once loathed as a "beast of waste," the gray wolf (in Yellowstone) is beloved by some as a symbol of unadulterated nature. (Jess R. Lee)

Wolves and the Balance of Nature in the Rockies

After years as an endangered species, the wolves are thriving again in the West, but they're also reigniting a fierce controversy

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Roger Lang looked at two black wolves looking back at him. "I knew they wouldn't get them all," he said, steadying his binoculars on the steering wheel of his pickup truck. "Some of them were trapped. Some were shot from helicopters. They culled nine and actually thought they got the whole pack. But you can see they didn't."

Sloping down to the Madison River, Lang's 18,000-acre Sun Ranch in southwest Montana is an Old West tableau of rippling prairie, plunging streams, ghostly bands of elk, browsing cattle—and, at the moment, two wolves poised like sentinels on a knoll beneath the snowy peaks of the Madison Range. About 25 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, the ranch straddles a river valley that is part of an ancient migration corridor for elk, deer, antelope and grizzly bears that move seasonally in and out of Yellowstone's high country.

Lang has a close-up view of one of the most dramatic and contentious wildlife experiments in a century—the reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains, where they were wiped out long ago. Caught in Canada and flown to Yellowstone, 41 wolves were released in the area between 1995 and 1997, restoring the only missing member of the park's native mammals. Since then, wolves have begun migrating in and out of the park, their howls music to ears of wilderness lovers and as chilling as war whoops to many ranchers.

Wolves from Yellowstone were on Lang's property by the time he acquired it in 1998. A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who amassed a fortune in the software business, he seeks to breach a gap between people—including many transplanted urbanites—who would grant wolves unconditional amnesty and others who would exterminate them. "Wolves were here before we were and deserve a place," said Lang. "But that doesn't mean some of them aren't going to die if they misbehave."

After wolves killed five of his cows, he consulted with federal wildlife officials, who pass sentence on incorrigible wolves. "The feds proposed taking out the whole pack and we acquiesced," he said.

As he peered again at the two surviving wolves, Lang's half-smile conveyed a mixture of alarm and relief. "They are remarkable animals."

Revered and reviled, the wolf embodies society's conflicted relationship with nature. A bronze wolf guarded the shrine of Apollo at Delphi; a wolf stalks a child in Little Red Riding Hood. Plains Indians respected the wolf as a great hunter and as a guide to the spirit world; American settlers slaughtered more than a million wolves during the 1800s. Trappers killed wolves that raided their traplines and sold the pelts for a dollar apiece. Stockmen's associations offered bounties for dead wolves. The slaughter was abetted by an ancient antagonism. Even Teddy Roosevelt, the cowboy conservationist, called the wolf a "beast of waste and desolation" and hunted it mercilessly.

The federal government began subsidizing wolf extermination on federal lands in 1915, and the last known wolf den in Yellowstone—prior to the wolf's recent comeback—was destroyed in 1923. By the 1940s, the animals were extinct in the northern Rocky Mountains—shot, trapped or poisoned. (A few hundred remained in the United States, mostly in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.) Then, at the dawn of the modern conservation movement and "coinciding with the paving of America," says Thomas McNamee, author of the 1997 book The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone, the wolf emerged as a symbol of the nation's vanishing wild heritage. It was among the first animals protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

The idea of returning the gray wolf, Canis lupus (which can be gray, black or white), to Yellowstone goes back to the Nixon administration. Proponents have argued that the wolf was a keystone species whose presence would reinvigorate the natural order. Without it, they said, Yellowstone was incomplete, the West a bland facsimile of its old wild self. "We have a psychological need for something big and bad that represents wildness. Wolves fulfill that," said Jim Halfpenny, an ecologist and author who has been leading wildlife classes in the park for nearly 40 years. Western lawmakers resisted reintroduction at first but eventually agreed to the plan. A loophole in the wolves' endangered species status authorized U.S. wildlife officials to kill animals that preyed on livestock on federal land and permitted landowners to do the same on their property. The loophole did not apply to wolves in the park: they remained under the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, as did a small number of wolves that had begun moving on their own into northern Montana from Canada in the late 1970s.

About the same time wolves were finally released in Yellowstone, three dozen others were also reintroduced in Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness. Both groups reclaimed old haunts with unanticipated gusto. Some of the park wolves scaled a ten-foot-high chain-link enclosure around their acclimation pen, and then dug under the fence to let out the rest of the wolves. Two traveled 40 miles within a week of gaining their freedom.

During the first decade after reintroduction, the wolf populations soared. By 2007, an estimated 1,500 wolves inhabited the northern Rockies of the United States—many descended from released wolves, others from the Canadian immigrant packs—with about 170 in Yellowstone.

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