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Reintroduction of wolf is a howling success

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WASHINGTON — Dear former Rep. Wayne Owens,

I know you cannot read this, since you died last year. But I felt I had to write this because I lived one of your longtime dreams this past weekend.

I saw a wolf in Yellowstone National Park.

That's something I never really thought I would experience when you started pushing to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone — after a 50-year absence — back in the 1980s.

Your proposal brought out the beast in some members of Congress and ranchers in the West. They worried their cattle and other livestock would essentially become wolf burgers if your plan proceeded.

They promised to throw every roadblock possible at you — and they did. I didn't think you could overcome that. But you believed you could, and you did.

I remember one press conference in particular in 1989 at the U.S. Capitol when you were again reintroducing your legislation — with a real, live wolf flown in from the state of Washington as a prop.

I remember that the Capitol police were not thrilled to see a wolf on the Capitol lawn — and protested that Capitol rules banned wild and certain other animals.

But your staff had done its research. It argued that the wolf was not wild and had been tamed and often taken to schools. Staff also pointed out that while Capitol rules specifically banned horses, sheep and insects, they said nothing about wolves — so police let your wolf stay for the press conference.

It was typical of how you pushed to the limit for wolves. I remember the glow in your eye that day when you said, "Yellowstone is the largest near-perfect ecosystem in the temperate zones. All it lacks is its chief predator — the wolf." You waxed poetic predicting that the cry of the wolf would be heard there — and be a tourist attraction.

But the same day at another press conference, the anti-wolf forces were also out. Former Rep. Ron Marlenee, R-Mont., threatened to call for introduction of wolves in Utah along the Jordan River, City Creek Canyon or Liberty Park. Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., called your work "a misguided and zealous effort."

They vowed to fight until your Democratic colleagues decided to "call off the wolf man." Instead, Democrats — who then controlled both houses of Congress — backed you.

In 1993, after you lost a race for the Senate and were out of Congress, I remember you, Wayne, still pushing for wolves at the final hearing on a study that recommended their reintroduction the next year. Your dream was coming true, and you told me you felt "as proud as a papa wolf about to have pups."

Last weekend, I traveled out West to drop off my daughter at Brigham Young University-Idaho. It isn't far from Yellowstone. My daughter had never seen it, so I took her and my mother for a quick tour.

We saw more bison and elk than we could count. They were amazingly fat. Several huge herds near mud volcano looked like they were in heaven — enjoying plenty of water, long grass and being on top of the food chain — except for wolves to stop overpopulation. I told my daughter about your efforts to reintroduce wolves then.

Soon, we came upon a traffic jam. In Yellowstone, that means people are looking at some sort of wildlife. That's how we spotted deer, elk, bison, a bald eagle and some moose that day. This time, I thought I saw a coyote — a smaller cousin of the wolf that always looks half-starved and acts afraid of its own shadow.

But this was too big, too fat and too furry. It was a wolf. He was near the road for just a few seconds. People were scrambling for cameras. The wolf didn't like the attention and disappeared into the woods. But I saw him. And I thought of you, Wayne.

Reintroduction of the wolf in the West, by most accounts, has been a howling success. They no longer are considered "endangered," only "threatened." Dire predictions about them generally appear to have been wrong. Somewhere, Wayne, I think you are looking down and smiling at all of that.

Deseret Morning News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at lee@desnews.com

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