Howl of the grey wolf returns to haunt the Rockies: Rupert Cornwell in Idaho's Bear Valley reports on a plan to bring Canis lupus back to its old home

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The Independent Online
IN these parts they call it the 'magic hour', that twilight interlude when the colours drain from every living thing, and night settles on the high mountain meadows. Watchful elk and moose slip away into the darkness and only the call of Canadian geese breaks the silence.

It is the hour when witches and predators stir, when you understand the legend of the grey wolf - why, more than 60 years after they were nearly exterminated, the wolves are coming back to the wilderness of the western Rockies.

The first trickle have done it on their own, slipping across the Canadian border. There were about 200 sightings in Idaho last year. Some may have been large coyotes, but others without doubt were wolves.

If you are lucky you may hear a distant bark or, best of all, a plaintive, guttural howl echoing from the pine woods, that will have the strongest trembling at the knees. Less romantically, you may find wolf droppings on a forest path. All are proof that wolves have quietly reclaimed their lost habitat. Now the United States government is about to make it official.

Once upon a time, wolves by the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, roamed North America. Today perhaps 50,000 are left, mostly in Canada and Alaska. Only in Minnesota is there a significant population, of around 2,000. Seven packs comprising 50 or more animals are believed to have re-established themselves in Montana, as well as the handful of irregulars here in central Idaho and around Yellowstone park in neighbouring Wyoming.

But within the next few days, the outlook for Canis lupus will improve. Two decades after the grey wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act, after eight official reports, dollars 6m (pounds 4m) of research and unyielding opposition from ranchers fearful for their livestock, President Bill Clinton is poised to approve a recommendation from the Fish and Wildlife Service for the reintroduction of wolves to 45,000 sq miles of federally-owned land in the two states.

Barring last-minute lawsuits, some time this autumn, when the elk and deer-hunting season is over, 30 wolves will be trapped somewhere in Canada. They will be taken south by truck or helicopter and set loose, 15 in central Idaho and 15 in Yellowstone. The same will happen each year until 2002. By then, if the plan works, a population of at least 100 will be thriving in each area, and the wolf will be taken off the US list of endangered species.

When the wolves begin to multiply, expect misfortune, runs an ancient Russian proverb. So it has proved for environmentalists.

'We've been shot at,' Suzanne Laverty, director of the Wolf Recovery Foundation in Boise, said. 'We've been sworn at, we've had threatening letters, they broke our car windows - and this was Idaho. In Wyoming it's far worse.'

But passions have cooled. Two years in the making, the final proposal of the Fish and Wildlife Service is a compromise. Visceral wolf-haters have been rebuffed: the animal will be reintroduced. But officially its return is 'experimental'. Wolves which attack livestock may be moved or killed. A private fund has been set up to compensate ranchers for cows, horses or sheep lost to wolves.

It seems so reasonable that one wonders, why the fuss? As Ms Laverty pointed out, 'Look at history: we've already proved we can get rid of them, so what's the big deal now?'

At issue are two or three hundred animals roaming three states covering an area greater than the British Isles and France, yet inhabited by barely 2 million people.

The Fish and Wildlife Service calculates that a wolf population of 100 in each area might kill 156 of the 720,000 cattle and sheep which graze the high pastures in summer.

Its main prey will be elks, deer and moose. Never in North America have wolves been known to attack humans - unlike the mountain lion or the cougar, one of which killed a jogger in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range in California last month.

American Indians like the local Nez Perce tribe revere the wolf as a symbol of power and freedom: its revival is held to portend their own.

But for the 19th century European settlers, the taming of the West demanded that wolves be eradicated even more ruthlessly than the Indians.

But even the West changes. After a shower of Oscars, Dances with Wolves has helped to shape a more sympathetic mood. Most local inhabitants want the grey wolf back. For one thing, in this age of eco-tourism, he means money: at least dollars 8m a year in projected extra revenue for Idaho alone. But perhaps not only money.

An official at the Wilderness Society said: 'And at a deeper level, humankind would be replacing some piece of the puzzle we took out decades ago - to correct something we did wrong.'

(Photograph and map omitted)