Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?

Reintroduced less than 10 years ago, wolves are breeding fast in the wilds of Idaho. But their presence has revived ancient fears about this fabled predator. And now some are calling for a programme of mass extermination. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent US

The wolf is long-gone but it has left its mark. The animal, an adult probably weighing somewhere between 80 and 100lbs, was in no hurry, easing itself gently down the steep track. It had most likely fed on the carcasses of some road-kill deer and elk, thrown into a nearby field by rangers. Sated by the easy meal and untroubled by anything it could sense in the surroundings, it moved on downhill. It is here, in the partially thawed mud, that it left its paw print.

The wolf is long-gone but it has left its mark. The animal, an adult probably weighing somewhere between 80 and 100lbs, was in no hurry, easing itself gently down the steep track. It had most likely fed on the carcasses of some road-kill deer and elk, thrown into a nearby field by rangers. Sated by the easy meal and untroubled by anything it could sense in the surroundings, it moved on downhill. It is here, in the partially thawed mud, that it left its paw print.

The impression is pristine. An inch or so deep and about the size of a woman's palm, it is - apparently - unmistakably that of a wolf. Even to the untrained eye it looks as though it belongs to something wild, something untamed. Here in the silence, in the clean, cold air - as crisp as a frozen margarita - there is something about the paw-print of this large carnivore that bears a sense of danger.

Ten years ago, it would have been utterly remarkable to have discovered the print here in the quiet snow-covered hills outside of Boise, capital of the US state of Idaho, where a golden eagle is circling overhead. Wolves had been virtually wiped out by generations of shooting and poisoning. But now, after a programme of reintroduction, they are thriving. The 35 wolves imported from Canada in 1995 have grown to a number probably upwards of 400. Within just 30 miles of the small, bustling city there are at least three separate wolf packs.

Those involved in the reintroduction are delighted by the animals' success. Federally protected against hunters and ranchers, the wolves in Idaho have done better even than in the neighbouring states, Wyoming and Montana, where they were also restored.

The opponents of the animals, however, are furious. The wolves have destroyed the elk and deer populations, they claim, and have attacked domestic pets and cattle. To their most vocal and extreme opponents, wolves are "piranhas" of the land that must be exterminated. Now, under considerable public pressure, the federal and state authorities are having to decide just what to do with their wolves and whether they should remain protected or become legal targets for hunters.

Yet the story of Idaho's wolves is not simply that of a dispute between ranchers and animal activists about the effect the reintroduction of the animals has had. Rather, it contains elements of a rural vs urban struggle, the issue of federal government interference, the issue of states' rights. And, at a more visceral level, it is also about mankind's domination of nature, about whether man should remain supreme or whether he can coexist alongside an animal that can threaten him. It is the story of our choice between civilisation and wildness.

Suzanne Stone, by her own admission, is a wolf fanatic. For more than 15 years she has worked to reintroduce the wolves and ensure their protection against hunters and poachers. A native of Boise, she now runs the Defenders of Wildlife, a public education group that also raises funds to compensate farmers whose livestock has been killed. It is she who has kindly taken me to find the wolf tracks.

"I have always been fascinated by wolves. I don't know why," she says. "It always seemed as though they were miscategorised. I grew up hearing stories about how bad they were. To me, wolves are the most effective enforcer of the eco-system that was native to this country. It is incredible to see the ripple effect of having them here and having the eco-system work in the way it was meant to."

The supporters of the wolves make much of these so-called ripples. By helping naturally control the populations of elk and deer, for instance, the presence of wolves benefits certain plants. This in turn can have a positive effect on some of the streams and rivers. Fish populations, they say, have benefited from the restoration of the wolf.

Stone does not dispute that wolves can kill livestock, though she doubts the kills are as frequent as some claim. But more importantly, she believes that with sufficient education, ranchers and farmers can be taught to utilise non-lethal methods to deter wolves - such as guard dogs and metal fences - rather than demand they be killed.

In addition, in recent years her organisation has paid out more than $350,000 (£200,000) in compensation to those whose animals have been killed. "We pay out 100 per cent of the market value for a confirmed kill," she says, as she leads the way back down the track. "Where the kill is disputed, we pay 50 per cent."

Ron Gillett is also fanatical about wolves but in a different way to Stone. He wants to see every last one of the wolves in Idaho killed. And the sooner the better. A gruff, outspoken man with a liking for cowboy hats and colourful language, Gillett, 61, says he is ready to go to war with the "wolf-lovers".

"There is no reason for wolves to be here. We don't want them here. They are the most vicious, cruellest predator in North America," he says over breakfast at a hotel near Boise airport. "They are land piranhas. The wolf-lovers will tell you they only kill to eat but that is bullshit. The wolf kills for sport."

Gillett claims that the wolves introduced from Canada are a different sub-species to the wolves that were previously in Idaho, that they can grow up to 140lbs and are perfectly capable of attacking a human. He says the group of which he is chairman, the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, has even obtained DNA evidence to prove this, though he has never released such data. He claims the "wolf-lovers" - who stridently dispute his science - are liars. "They are trying to make us out to be Aryan-nation radicals," he says in a loud voice, jabbing his finger into the air. "They are pathetic."

His group, which has been gathering what it says is evidence of wolf attacks on livestock and even people, is now raising money to file a lawsuit against the federal authorities for "dumping an exotic species" in Idaho in contravention of current legislation. "And we will beat them in court," he says, "unless we get some lesbian-loving judge."

The grey wolf, Canis lupus, is no stranger to such persecution. Indeed, a large part of the history of civilisation's spread over the past few thousand years relates to man's assault upon wolves and other large predators.

In India, where wolves have long been on the losing side of wolf/human confrontations, wolf pups are smoked to death in their dens. In Britain, where wolves were once common, the last is believed to have been killed in 1743 in Scotland's Findhorn Valley. In Ireland, they are believed to have been all killed by the 1770s. Today, in Alaska they are shot by hunters with high-powered rifles riding in helicopters.

Humankind's assault upon the wolf has been made not just with rifle, trap or poison bait, but with our very language and the savage images and connotations we prescribe the animal. We wolf things down, someone is thrown to the wolves, someone might be a wolf in sheep's clothing, we do whatever we can to keep the wolf from the door.

Given this cultural proclivity against wolves, the story of their reintroduction in Idaho is all the more remarkable. Proponents seized on the idea in the late Eighties, convinced that the state was the perfect place to carry out the trial to restore the animal. Among those who supported the plan were members of the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans, who said the wolf's return suggested better fortunes for their people.

Indeed, Idaho would seem to have much going for it. The size of Britain but with a population of just 1.3 million, Idaho remains the most wild and least developed of the US states other than Alaska. Even today, crossing the state by road - the middle of which contains the vast River of No Return wilderness - can require an arduous and twisting journey.

The plan to reintroduce the animals gathered momentum during early years of the Clinton administration and the Northern Rockies Grey Wolf Project was finally approved in 1994. The first wolves were released in the beginning of 1995.

For the past decade, the reintroduction project in the three states has been administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In Idaho, the wolf recovery co-ordinator is Carter Niemeyer, a tall, good-natured official with a love of the outdoors who likes to boast gently that he has never once had to wear a suit for his job. "For the most part, wolves have not been a problem in Idaho," he says. "People are fearful. People have read about what wolves were supposed to be doing 100 years ago. They think that they are going to attack children at the bus stop."

But under public pressure, the state of Idaho, along with Montana and Wyoming, is now pushing to take control of the management of its wolf population. Under the new proposals that were made public a fortnight ago, the protection of wolves will be loosened, allowing ranchers to kill the animals simply for harassing livestock or pets. State wildlife managers will also be able to kill wolves where herds of big game are not meeting population goals. "This will provide Idaho with the opportunity and responsibility to address wolf predation on livestock and our big-game herds," Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho's governor, announced.

Few are happy with this plan. Stone believes the proposals will destabilise the viability of the wolf population. "They are a really vulnerable species. It's just their nature." Gillett, meanwhile, argues that such tinkering does not address the problem. "There is no such thing as a balance of nature," he says. "You can tweak nature, but you cannot balance it."

What has the wolf done to deserve such treatment, to be reintroduced to a place from which it was once forced out only to be threatened once again by man? Dr Ralph Maughan, a political scientist by training, has spent many years studying the wolves of Idaho. He believes the animals have received bad press.

"I think it's cultural," he says, speaking by telephone from his home in Pocatello, in the heart of rural Idaho. "They cannot do very much economic harm - even in a small place."

He adds: "There is cultural anger - rural people against urban people - and also anger against the federal government. The wolves are a symbol for them. It's a symbol on which they can focus their emotion."

Maughan also believes that the wolves of Idaho may be a victim of some sort of recovered folk memory, a tradition that has been continued down the generations. "The fear of wolves started in Europe and that continued when [settlers] came to the US," he says.

Richard Manning, author of Against the Grain: how agriculture has hijacked civilisation, has also had a window seat to the wolf recovery programme. A resident of a rural part of Montana, Manning also believes that at some level wolves may be being persecuted because of what they symbolise. "They have been a symbol of nature as opposed to progress, predictability and security. Nothing symbolises anti-agriculture as much as the wolf."

For now, at least, it seems as though the wolf is here to stay. Gillett's group is threatening legal action as well as public disobedience should the review being considered by the state and federal authorities not go far enough. But at the same time, the supporters of the wolf are gathering their forces, collecting the sort of evidence they say proves the value of the animal to the entire eco-system. This time around the wolf will not be allowed to disappear without a fight. The impression in the mud seems fixed.