ALBANY, N.Y. - A few years back, when Hank Fischer of the Defenders of Wildlife was trying to persuade hostile Western ranchers to accept the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, he was sometimes met with a counterchallenge: Since Easterners are so interested in wolves, "why don't you introduce them to New York City or Washington, D.C.?"
Washington may be a little too dangerous for wolves, Fischer jokes, and they are not likely to be in Central Park any time soon. But a nascent effort to return them to New York state - specifically, the Adirondacks - is gaining traction with the surprising and widely publicized success of the Yellowstone reintroduction program, now nearly 2 years old.
Nine packs totaling 40 free-ranging wolves have become established in and around Yellowstone and are breeding so successfully that Mike Phillips, a National Park Service biologist who directs the program, says the endangered gray wolf is beginning "to flirt with recovery," well ahead of schedule, in his part of the country.
40,000 sign petition
As a result of the Yelowstone success, Defenders of Wildlife is spearheading a drive to return wolves to the Adirondacks and parts of Maine and New Hampshire, from which they have been absent for a century. The private Washington-based conservation organization also headed the Yellowstone campaign.
State officials, who would be responsible for approving and managing a restoration program in the 5.4 million-acre Adirondack Park, are cautious: The wolf is a talismanic creature that provokes the strongest of sentiments pro and con.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will remain neutral pending a thorough study, Alan C. Hicks, senior wildlife biologist for the department, said. The Defenders of Wildlife has offered to finance a feasibility study - the first official step in what would undoubtedly be a long public process - and the two conservation groups have started discussions.
Defenders of Wildlife says it has gathered 40,000 petition signatures in support of conducting a study.
Gov. George E. Pataki "doesn't believe that the reintroduction of the wolf to the Adirondacks should be imposed by Albany," said Michael F. McKeon, a spokesman. "It would have to have the support of local communities."
The controversy has already begun. Mark F. Emery, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, the state's largest agriculture-lobbying group, called the proposal ludicrous. "We already have an overabundance of predators, particularly coyotes," he said. "From a livestock standpoint, the wolf would do a number on sheep operations and also dairy farms. There are both sheep and dairy operations in the park itself and within a short distance, and wolves certainly are not limited in their travel."
Dr. L. David Mech, a federal biologist regarded as one of the world's top experts on wolves, acknowledged that the downside of wolf reintroduction is livestock depredation. As a wolf population expands, he said, it spreads outside parks.
But advocates say that livestock losses would be small, as they have been around Yellowstone and in central Idaho, where wolves have also been reintroduced, and in northwestern Montana, which they have recolonized naturally. Defenders of Wildlife, which is supported by members and contributors, compensates for such losses. Wolves that habitually attack livestock are themselves killed in the West. One has been eliminated near Yellowstone, Phillips said.
Mech said he thought the price of killing a few wolves when necessary was worth it, since the alternative would be no wolves at all.
Therein lies another possible source of contention. "People don't like the idea that wolves have to be killed," said Fischer, the Northern Rockies representative of the Defenders of Wildlife.
Wolves typically live only six years. "They are going to die somehow," Fischer said. "It's a hard balance to strike."
Advocates of reintroduction argue that wolves have become such a popular tourist attraction wherever they exist that the dollars they would generate in the economically depressed Adirondacks would far outweigh any livestock losses. Proponents say further that the wolf, as a keystone predator, would restore wholeness and balance to an out-of-kilter ecosystem - for instance, by reducing a runaway beaver population that many residents of the region find intolerable.
While the gray wolf remains plentiful in Canada and Alaska, it was systematically exterminated because it was a predator by the early 20th century in most of the contiguous 48 states, where it is officially listed as endangered. An exception is Minnesota, where there are some 2,000 wolves bearing the less serious designation of threatened.
Most biologists agree that the Eastern timber wolf, a subspecies gray wolf, formerly inhabited the Adirondacks.
There is also wide agreement among experts that the Adirondacks offer an ideal wolf habitat. As the largest remaining wild area in the East, they said, the mountains contain enough deer and beaver to support roughly 150 wolves without reducing deer herds enough to cut into hunters' game supply.
But while biological feasibility may not be a problem, Hicks said, the state also requires that a re- introduction be socially acceptable.
Focus on reasonableness
Some experts note that 130,000 people live on the 60 percent of Adirondack Park land that is privately owned, and they express concern about wolves coming into contact with humans. But biologists said there appeared to be enough public wilderness to support wolves, and experts are unanimous in saying wolves so fear people that they will not come near them.
Veterans of the recent wolf wars that flared over reintroductions in the West sounded one theme strongly: Respect local concerns. Reasonableness, "rather than just coming in bulling your way onto the block," is the way to go, Phillips said.
Feelings about wolves "run the entire gamut, and on both ends of the spectrum they're very vocal," Mech said. Although some experts believe that attitudes about wolves are becoming more positive, primal fears die hard.
Kent Weber, who operates Mission: Wolf, a refuge for unwanted wolf pets in Colorado, was asked what he considered the biggest obstacle to wolf reintroduction. "Little Red Riding Hood," he answered.
'Legacy of wilderness'
Mech says that in North America, where hoofed animals that provide the wolf's main meals are plentiful, there is no documented case of serious injury to a human by an unprovoked, nonrabid wolf. It is not as if advocates are "asking to introduce the timber rattler to Long Island," said Dr. John I. Green, a wolf expert at St. Lawrence University who favors the reintroduction.
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University, who studies attitudes about nature, predicted that while "farmers will weigh in against wolf reintroduction, I don't think you will get anywhere near the kind of opposition that occurred out West." For one thing, he said, those who most strongly support wolves - educated urbanites - are concentrated in the Northeast.
New Yorkers prize the Adirondacks' "legacy of wilderness," said Michael G. DiNunzio, director of research and education for the Adirondack Council, an environmental group based in the region. Wolf reintroduction is "right for the wolf, it's right for the park and it's right for people," he said.
Pub Date: 12/13/96