Sen. James McClure, a conservative Idaho Republican often considered a foe of environmentalists, has come out strongly in support of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho.

McClure, in an interview with the Defenders of Wildlife magazine, says wolves "are a natural part of an ecosystem that will function better with their presence."He said the elk herd has grown too large in Yellowstone because of the lack of predators. Brucellosis has been found, a sign of overcrowding.

"Wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone unnaturally," he says in the interview. "Nature didn't do it - they were eliminated because of their conflict with man.

"If we can reintroduce them in a way that minimizes that conflict with man and man's raising of livestock, then I think we will have accomplished something."

McClure, former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and now its ranking Republican, says wolves belong in the Northern Rockies, but not everywhere.

"We already have a wolf population in the Glacier Park area (of Montana), and I think they're appropriate in Yellowstone," he said. "I see no reason not to have them in some of the designated wilderness of Idaho - for example, along the Idaho-Montana border where there's no livestock grazing."

He said wolves should be aggressively managed, adding: "The only way we'll achieve wolf recovery is if we do it in a way that doesn't threaten people who live near the recovery areas."

He said he would manage the wolves by removing them from the Endangered Species List in those areas where reintroduction occurs, then giving management responsibility to state fish and game agencies.

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone has been fiercely opposed by the Wyoming congressional delegation. McClure attributed that opposition to Wyoming's "very strong ranching tradition. Ranchers have had to contend with predators, and wolves are predators . . . That's why we have to find a way to reassure the ranching population that their livelihood and economic survival will not be at risk.

"If we expect the ranchers near Yellowstone Park to accept wolf reintroduction, they must know that if wolves come outside the park and start causing problems, the rancher will be able to protect his livestock," McClure said.