Cody, Wyoming -- Kenneth Pawley can't figure it. The idea of bringing wolves back to this part of the country is "about the craziest thing I've heard," said the 71-year-old sheep rancher.
They'll tear his flocks apart, he said. "A sheep is just about the most helpless thing in the world." His dog, lame and half-crippled, barked the flock into a swirling frenzy around Mr. Pawley to prove the point.
Wolves, bears, cougars, buffalo: The "no vacancy" sign is out for all kinds of wild creatures in the West. This part of the country spends much of its time arguing about bringing back animals that man once drove away. Like a line from a bad Western movie, many here feel the great outdoors isn't big enough for both man and nature.
"We're going to have to turn it over to the animals or the people," complained an outdoorsman from Billings, Mont. "And the damned people ain't going to like that when they realize what that means."
Whether it is grizzly bears or black-footed ferrets, the argument rage over how and where and whether these animals can return to lands they once roamed.
"The key question is whether we have reached a point in our evolution that we can share a part of what we have with the species that used to be here," said Louisa Willcox, a conservationist. "Some people have evolved to that point; others haven't."
Farmers and ranchers complain the clock cannot be turned back to a time when this was unending prairie without fences or fields or cattle herds to be tended. They suspect a conspiracy of Eastern Audubonists to ruin their livelihoods.
Animal fanciers say it is high time to stop man's exploitation of the land at the expense of the original four-footed inhabitants. They favor returning some species to their native lands.
When that happens, there is inevitably some bumping of territories. The return of bison to Yellowstone National Park, for example, has been a success story for the buffalo. From a mere handful of bison in the early part of this century, the herds in and around Yellowstone have swelled to nearly 2,500, giving tourists plenty of opportunities to take pictures and get butted by annoyed buffalo bulls.
But the big animals have a habit of lumbering out of the park boundaries and onto nearby ranch land. This is threatening to cattlemen, because some of the buffalo carry brucellosis, a disease that could infect their cows and cause considerable economic loss.
Rangers have tried blank shotgun shells, dogs and even a helicopter to buzz the straying animals, but could not drive them back into the national park. The buffalo don't like to be told where to go.
"They just have minds of their own," said rancher Ocile Portmann, who found bison foraging on his cattle pasture recently. One buffalo wandered into a KOA Kampground and settled in. Grumbled the owner about the immovable guest: "He thinks he owns the place."
When all else has failed, rangers occasionally have had to shoot wandering buffalo that refused to return to their own home on the range.
But shooting always causes such a hassle. Montana officials found that out last spring when they opened a limited hunting season for grizzly bears. Hunters got three bears, and lawyers bagged lots of work as animal-welfare groups dragged the state into court. Federal officials first backed the grizzly hunt, then backed off, to the dismay of Montana's Gov. Stan Stephens. He accused the agency of "hand-wringing and whimpering."
Federal agencies sometimes cannot win. When the U.S. Forest Service suggested moving problem grizzlies from Yellowstone to the isolated Targhee National Forest in Idaho, it got lambasted by the Mormon Church. The church operates a girls' camp in the area and did not relish losing any campers to a hungry bear.
The government also is caught in the middle of a plan to bring wolves back to Yellowstone Park, where they formerly loped in fearless packs. Federal wardens at Yellowstone helped trap, poison and shoot wolves to near-extinction here in the 1920s, but now find themselves defending a proposal to reintroduce the wolves.
"We all recognize the U.S. isn't going to be what it was in 1820," said Wayne Brewster, a Park Service researcher. "But there is 5 million to 8 million acres in the park and surrounding wilderness areas, with very abundant wolf prey. We think it's manageable."
Mr. Pawley, the sheep rancher, and others in the states surrounding the park angrily disagree. They are convinced the wolves will not stay in the park boundaries.
On most years, Gene and Lois Walsh drive 600 or 700 head of cattle from winter low grounds to a summer pasture near the Centennial Range of mountains near the park. The cows are largely untended up there and would be easy prey for wolves, say the ranchers.
"Why do you think they paid a bounty on these wolves in the first place?" asks Mr. Walsh. "A wolf to a rancher is like a bank robber to a bank."
It's not just cows that could be threatened. Outfitter Daniel Delekta, who runs the Beartooth Fly Fishing and Hunting Lodge near Cameron, Mont., believes wolves will follow the elk and deer that come down the Madison River Valley in the winter to his lodge's back door. "I'm not going to want to have my 5-year-old daughter playing outside, sliding down that hill out back, when there may be a wolf out there," he said.
Despite laws that threaten stiff fines for harming endangered species, "I think people are going to shoot, shovel and shut up," said a rancher who asked not to be named.
"It's the people back East who think up these things, not the people who live here," contends Rusty Hildebrand, a 42-year-old ranch hand. Others around the counter at the Cody (Wyo.) Feed Store nodded in agreement.
"They think it would be great to see wolves back in nature," said Pete Lovelace, a horseman who stopped by to pick up some feed. "Now there's too many elk and buffalo in the park, so they get the bright idea of bringing wolves back. What's going to happen in 10 years when we're up to our ass in wolves?"
"They're just constructing a bogyman, said Ms. Willcox, program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group that supports plans to restore endangered species. "They create this enemy -- the New York City, Eastern, animal-rights groups -- who are coming to take their land away. I've been out here 17 years, and I don't think I'm an Eastern animal lover. We've got lots of ranchers who are members."
"The bottom line," she said, "is if we can't protect these animals in Yellowstone in some kind of natural way, where can we do it?"