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WOLVES A HEARING AWAY FROM RETURN

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After more than a century of policy flip-flops in which the gray wolf went from the most loathsome animal in America to the celebrated subject of perhaps the most extensive environmental impact statement ever done, the mythic predator is a single court hearing away from a formal return to the West.

That it has taken two decades, 120 public hearings, directives from six presidents, dozens of congressional committees and $12 million worth of studies to get to a point where wolves could soon run through Yellowstone National Park tells much about the heavy load of significance that has been saddled to the wolf.What federal biologists hope to do in early January is place a predator with a lust for fresh meat back into a part of the country that is overrun with moose, elk and deer - staples of a wolf's diet.

But even as Yellowstone park rangers put the final touches on one-acre pens intended to acclimate the wolves to the park's Lamar Valley, cattle and sheep ranchers are balking at the historic turnabout in attitudes and policy.

The ranchers, the biggest beneficiaries of the campaign 70 years ago to eliminate the wolves from the West, have filed a lawsuit that threatens to hold up the project.

On Dec. 21, a federal judge in Wyoming will decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction.

For those most passionate about bringing the wolf back, the project is viewed as a grand restorative deed, balancing a zealous act of one era with a corrective act of another.

It is absurd, they argue, that wolves still roam free not far from the urban masses of Rome, Italy, but cannot yet be allowed inside North America's largest temperate zone ecosystem, the greater Yellowstone area.

Without wolves, the world's first national park "is a heart without a heartbeat," in the words of Renee Askins, founder of the Wolf Fund, based in Wyoming and devoted to returning the animal to this area.

Under the plan, 30 wolves in Canada, tagged with radio collars so biologists can track them, are to be brought into Yellowstone and the wilderness of central Idaho, 15 to each area.

Eventually, over five years, the plan is to establish a population of about 150 wolves in each area.

But to ranchers, one person's call of the wild is a nuisance with a 1,500-pound-per-square-inch bite. They see an America where less than 2 percent of the population works the land and where beef prices continue to fall with declining demand.

"When wolves were a fact of the area, most people made their livelihood from the land," said Bill Wheeler, a third-generation rancher in western Montana. "Now, only 11/2 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, and the other 98 plus percent have been indoctrinated by a Disney mentality about the wolf."