The unexpectedly strong comeback of the wolf in the northern Rockies has created a great snarling and gnashing of teeth, but it's not the sound of the mighty predators bringing down elk or the occasional cow.
It's the wrangling over what to do now that wolves have re-established themselves.
Since the gray wolf was reintroduced to Wyoming and Idaho in 1995 — eight years after it was brought back to northwestern Montana — the population has grown twice as fast as anyone believed possible. Last summer the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the process of removing the wolf from the endangered species list could begin, once the three states came up with acceptable management plans to control the population.
Both Idaho and Montana drew up plans that were approved by the FWS, but Wyoming's plan was rejected. State law classifies the wolf as a predator, meaning wolves could be killed on sight anywhere in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone National Park and the adjoining wilderness area.
The state has announced it is suing the federal government over the rejection, but for federal wildlife officials, the proposal remains unacceptable.
"It would be legal [under Wyoming's proposed plan] to have me get in a helicopter, search out wolf packs, kill them all, then search out the cubs in their dens and kill them," said Ed Bangs, coordinator of the FWS gray wolf recovery program.
The state, though, says the wolf deserves to retain its predator status, because the rising population has caused "severe damage" to other wildlife species, such as elk, deer, buffalo, bighorn sheep and antelope, as well as to livestock, according to the letter from Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Attorney General Patrick Crank to officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior announcing the intention to file suit.
To ranchers, the designation of predator fits the wolf.
"I do not believe that livestock and wolves can coexist," said Albert Sommers, a rancher and president of the Upper Green River Cattleman's Association. "Every time a wolf pack has come into contact with livestock, they depredate livestock. It's nothing against wolves, it's just that cattle or sheep are slower than deer or elk or other game."
The claims of "severe damage" to the elk population are at odds with what federal and state wildlife officials say has occurred, but it isn't surprising that there should be such differences of opinion about the effect of the wolf's return. Throughout history and around the world, wolves seem to have always evoked strong emotions, either for or against.
In mythology and folklore, wolves have appeared either as forces for good — raising orphaned human children or aiding humans in seemingly impossible quests — or as the embodiment of evil.
That kind of sharp split holds for too many people, biologists say.
"The whole wolf issue has nothing to do with reality, it has everything to do with symbols," Bangs said. "If you're a big cycle person and believe that everything works together, you tend to like wolves. If you believe people are on top of everything, you tend not to like wolves."
Sommers said that doesn't reflect his thinking. He doesn't think wolves are evil, it's just that they kill his livestock.
"A wolf is a wolf, it's not a sinister animal," he said. "It just does what it does."
There is no doubt, though, that wolves have had a broad effect on the ecology of the northern Rockies, some of it unexpected.