Wolf's cry heard again in the Rockies

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A first batch of Canadian grey wolves has been released into Yellowstone park - meaning that canis lupus yesterday was finally and officially back in the Northern Rockies of the United States, where six decades ago it was systematically exterminat ed on the orders of the federal government.

The triumphal reintroduction, superintended by the Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, in person at the northern gate of America's oldest national park, took place after a Denver appeals court overturned a temporary stay obtained by Western cattlemen who have fought the plan from the outset.

Crowds lined the way as a horse trailer carrying the cages containing eight wolves entered the park in northern Wyoming. As soon as news of the appeals court ruling came through the wolves, all trapped in mountainous western Alberta, were released into individual one-acre pens. Once acclimatised, they will be let loose into the wild.

Thus ends - or at least seems to end - a struggle between environmentalists and ranchers fearful for their livestock, which lasted since the wolf was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in the mid-1970s. Hundreds of experts have testified, eight reports were issued and nearly $7m (£4.4m) spent on research.

Of the many ecological arguments in the US, few have matched for intensity the passions raised by the arguments over the wolf, fuelled not just by ranchers who say the new predators will decimate their flocks and herds during the upland grazing seasons, but by the sinister legends surrounding the animal here as throughout the world.

"When wolves begin to multiply, expect misfortune," runs a Russian proverb. So the ranchers fear, and so too do local environmentalists who have come under abuse and physical threat as the day of the wolf's return has neared. In addition to the eight already in Yellowstone, four more are destined for the wilds of neighbouring Idaho. Fifteen wolves a year will be released in each state, with the target of a thriving population of 100 more in both Idaho and Wyoming by 2002.

Even so the legal tussle is not over. With Wolves already plentiful in Minnesota and staging a comeback in the southern Appalachians, the anti-lupine lobby asks whythey need to be restored to the Rockies. The return moreover is "experimental", and could yet be halted if other courts uphold the ranchers' complaints, or if the wolves acquire an excessive appetite for fresh lamb and beef, instead of the elk and deer which are their usual prey. Calculations are, however, that even a full complement of wolves would kill no more than 150-odd of the 720,000 cattle and sheep on the high summer pastures.

But the 20-year battle for the wolf may be among the last triumphs of the Endangered Species Act. The Republicans who control Capitol Hill detest the measure, which has generated a string of controversies. Cost-cutting to reduce the federal budget deficit could also eliminate entire research services of the Interior Department, the scientific "policeman" for the ESA. But right now for the Rocky Mountain wolf at least, justice has been done.