Reintroducing gray wolves in the Northern Rockies may be an admirable environmental goal, but Idaho sheep ranchers say it could make them an endangered species.

"We're fighting for our survival," Dick Egbert, a Tetonia sheep rancher, said during a panel discussion at the Idaho Wool Growers Convention in Pocatello.Egbert said only a few large sheep operations remain in Idaho, and there will be even fewer if wolves are allowed to take over the nation's public lands.

But Pat Tucker, a representative of the National Wildlife Federation from Missoula, Mont., argued that few ranchers will ever have a wolf on their property, much less one that kills their stock.

She said wolf depredation continues to be "grossly exaggerated" by ranchers, and that the grain eaten by ducks each year creates a far greater economic loss than the livestock lost to wolves.

Conservationists have been fighting for reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park, central Idaho's wilderness areas and Glacier National Park in Montana since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a recovery plan in 1987.

The plan calls for establishment of 10 breeding pairs of the endangered Rocky Mountain gray wolf in each of the three areas. Political opposition has put that plan on hold.

"From our standpoint wolves aren't our problem; it's the impact they will have on existing predator control programs," said Jeff Siddoway, president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association.

Tucker argued, however, that wolves are a healthy part of a natural ecosystem, and conservationists are only fighting to protect the few remaining wilderness areas that can sustain wolf populations.

"If we don't have those (natural) areas, we're going to lose part of our heritage," she said. "Just like if we don't have sheep ranchers, we're going to lose part of our heritage."