Few wildlife issues in recent years have been as emotionally charged as proposals to reintroduce wolves into areas they once roamed freely.
Ed Bangs, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery project in Montana, told a group at Utah State University, his alma mater, in April that one of the biggest challenges he faces is dispelling myths - both positive and negative - about wolf behavior.Bangs said mountain lions kill about as much game and livestock as wolves but, unlike wolves, mountain lions occasionally attack people.
"But mountain lions don't stir up anywhere near the emotion that wolves do," he said.
The last wolf in Montana was killed in 1930, Bangs said, and its death was cause for celebration.
"Some old-timers remember when that last wolf was killed near their town and everyone celebrated," Bangs said. "So they really wonder about you when you talk about trying to bring the wolves back."
On the other side of the issue now are people and organizations devoted to preserving and defending endangered species at any cost.
People, regardless of their opinion of wolves, are guilty of thinking of animals in terms of human values and emotions and judging the animal's behavior as good or bad, he said.
Bangs' initial experience with wolves came while he was the refuge biologist on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Wolves were eliminated from the Kenai Peninsula in 1910, but they recolonized the area in the late 1960s. He has headed the Montana project since 1988.
The main concerns people have with wolf recovery programs are that the animals will kill livestock, that wolves will seriously decrease the amount of game available for hunters, that the programs will cost too much and that along with government-run recovery programs will come government land-use restrictions.
One survey showed among the general public 42 percent of those surveyed like the idea of reintroducing wolves in the lower 48 states, but just 14 percent of sheep producers and 30 percent of cattle producers favor the plans.
A study on the proposal to bring wolves back to Yellowstone National Park was to have been given to Congress on May 15. But that plan may have been stalled when Interior Secretary Manual Lujan in April called for additional public meetings on the issue.
Proponents of the reintroduction plan say the meetings are just another stall tactic used by powerful rancher and farmer lobbies to delay the program.
Those meetings will be held May 13 in Cody, Wyo., Idaho Falls, and Great Falls, Mont.
In the history of the western United States, settlers nearly wiped out all wildlife, the bison being a prime example, Bangs said.
"Wolves and other predators began preying on domestic animals because that's all that was left," he said.
Reintroducing wolves in national parks and wilderness areas does not guarantee that wolves won't kill livestock, Bangs admitted. In the Montana program, wolves that are killing livestock are moved deep within Glacier National Park and given "just one more chance to be good wolves."
But packs cover territories of 200 to 300 square miles, making it difficult to track those that are killing livestock, and impossible to ensure that they will not return to those areas once they are moved.
Defenders of Wildlife, a preservation organization, will pay producers full market value to replace livestock that have been killed by wolves, Bangs added.
The consequences are severe for illegally killing wolves. Even if a rancher comes upon a wolf bothering or killing his livestock and kills the wolf he can be sentenced a year in prison, have his property confiscated, lose his fishing and hunting privileges in the United States and be fined up to $100,000.
Enforcement of the law is a challenge, though, since many ranchers and their livestock live in remote areas.
Wolves are shy creatures and try to avoid contact with people, Bangs said. In some cases contact with domestic animals has proven dangerous for the wolves, since they are prone to contract a variety of dog viruses against which they have no immunity.