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STUDY SAYS RETURNING WOLVES TO PARK WOULD HELP ECOSYSTEM

SHARE STUDY SAYS RETURNING WOLVES TO PARK WOULD HELP ECOSYSTEM

The return of wolves running wild through Yellowstone National Park would add to the enjoyment of tourists and restore a missing link in the park's ecosystem, experts say.

But ranchers, fearful of livestock losses, oppose reintroducing the predators, 81,000 of which were killed between 1883 and 1918 in state and federal extermination programs.Now a 600-page study to be presented to Congress this week predicts little harm to wildlife or livestock near the park if wolves are returned, according to those familiar with it.

More important, say the experts, it's time to move beyond speculation of how wolves would act in Yellowstone.

"All of the studies currently going on will not absolve the need to introduce wolves and let them tell us what to do," said James Peek, a University of Idaho researcher.

Durward Allen, a Purdue University researcher who has studied wolves on Minnesota's Isle Royale for 20 years, says the government is obligated to re-establish the gray wolf "because it was part of the aboriginal fauna that we are committed to preserving, as nearly as possible, in its primitive configuration."

Rupert Cutler, president of Defenders of Wildlife, the most visible proponent of wolves in Yellowstone, hopes the latest study ends the political debate over wolves that has kept the federal government studying the predators.

"The government studies show we can meet the needs of ranchers and outfitters while meeting the desire of millions of Americans to see wolves restored to our nation's best-known national park."

Apart from their aesthetic value, the wolves would rein in an out-of-control elk population that is slowly denuding the park's northern range, Cutler said.

In lobbying for wolf restoration, Defenders magazine surveyed 16 North American wolf experts who overwhelmingly called for implementation of the plan.

Peek told the magazine that "Yellowstone is a place where natural dynamic processes are allowed to be restored and perpetuated, and the predation process is incomplete without the wolf."

In the latest study, Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service researchers examined how 100 to 150 wolves might interact with grizzly bears and Yellowstone's ungulate populations, such as the elk and bison. They also analyzed control methods and wolves' impact on wildlife in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho outside the park.

Members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee predicted there would be little if any overall effect either on grizzly or wolf populations, although some individual bears could be harmed.

The study also is expected to conclude that over a 20- to 30-year period there could be a 10 percent to 25 percent reduction in Yellowstone's elk herds, which contain an estimated 31,000 animals, and a 20 percent reduction in bison, which now number 2,000.

However, the research also notes that the action of predators increases the general physiology of prey, resulting in increased reproduction.

How wolves outside the park affect livestock depends on how stringently wolves are controlled, according to the study. There are an estimated 10,000 cows and 5,000 sheep in the immediate area of the park.

Controls currently used in Minnesota and Canada range from traps to poison, and in Montana wolves that preyed on livestock have been killed by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.

A key to the controls is whether wolves are returned under an experimental status, as suggested by previous studies, or on their own, according to Steve Fritts, a Montana-based Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who helped coordinate the study.

If wolves returned on their own, they would fall under the Endangered Species Act, which bans killing of listed animals by the general public and restricts federal agents to hunt only problem animals.

Under an experimental designation, Fritts said, more lenient rules pertaining to the killing of wolves that leave Yellowstone could be instituted.