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Wyoming is crying wolf

LOS ANGELES - The federal government's program to reintroduce the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996 was cheered in most of the country for restoring a critical link in the balance of nature in the nation's first such park. Not, however, in Wyoming. Ranchers feared for their herds, despite explicit federal permission to shoot any wolf caught attacking cattle or sheep, plus a promise of full reimbursement for any losses. The losses have been far less than feared, and the affected ranchers have been compensated. But the fear and loathing linger.

From the federal perspective, the program has been successful. The original population of 31 wolves has grown to more than 500, and Yellowstone's ecology has come back into balance, in part because the wolves have reduced chronic overpopulation of elk. Some wolf packs have roamed widely across park boundaries.

The Fish and Wildlife Service now has moved to take the wolf off the endangered species list - prematurely, some environmental groups believe. Nonetheless, the agency called on the states involved to develop wolf management plans that would ensure the health of the wolf population.

Idaho and Montana submitted adequate plans. But Wyoming insisted on sticking by its law that declared the wolf a predator and allowed the animals to be shot anytime and anywhere. The only concession from the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission was that the wolf would be classified as a trophy game animal, thereby limiting the number that could be killed.

Cheers for the Bush administration for flatly rejecting this plan. Federal experts said the trophy game designation, though better than shoot-on-sight, held no assurance that it would keep wolf populations at sustainable levels.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission may, in this case, be losing touch with its constituents. Wyoming residents who sent the commission comments on the new program were about equally divided for and against. In fact, Yellowstone's wolves have proved to be a popular tourist draw, enhancing the state's most robust business.

If Wyoming agrees to changes demanded by the Interior Department, the wolf is likely to be removed from the endangered species list. Hunting still will have to be closely monitored. Wolves have been restored to the haughty pinnacle of the food chain in Yellowstone and have thrilled those who catch a glimpse of a pack or hear their chilling howl. The benefit far outweighs the lingering, unfulfilled fears of Wyoming's ranchers.

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