Today the reintroduced wolves, natural dispersers and their descendants have spread into Wyoming as far as the southern fringe of the Wind River Range; in Montana to the outskirts of Bozeman, Missoula and Helena; in Idaho to the outskirts of Sun Valley and within 40 miles of Boise. The number of wolves in the U.S. Northern Rockies has exploded to more than 540 - plus a couple hundred new pups in the dens right now, not yet included in the official count.

With at least 34 packs breeding, and local populations increasing as much as 30 percent per year, the spread of wolves appears likely to continue at a dramatic pace.

"They are terrific dispersers. It wouldn't surprise me to see a thousand wolves in the Northern Rockies within five years," says Tom France, who heads the National Wildlife Federation regional office in Missoula, Mont.

To the east, the gray wolf population in Minnesota has spread over roughly 40 percent of that state and into Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Minnesota now has about 2,500 wolves in 300 packs, including some passing through the suburbs of Minneapolis and reaching nearly to North Dakota; Wisconsin and Michigan are up to about 500 wolves total. One disperser was reported recently as far south as Missouri.

In the West, three gray wolves dispersing from Idaho have shown up in Oregon's Blue Mountains in the past two years, and there have been at least 40 unconfirmed sightings of wolves as far west as Bend, Ore. In Washington last February, a biologist in a scouting plane saw a gray wolf eating a dead moose, a few miles west of the Idaho border.

Vast gray-wolf habitat or pockets of habitat are in line to be reoccupied in Washington, Oregon, northern California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, northern Arizona, New Mexico, and the Dakotas, wolf conservationists and wolf scientists believe.

There are still some doubts about the future of the wolf, but the optimistic predictions make it sound like a new golden age is dawning. Wolf-support centers, doing field work and educating the public, have sprung up from Minnesota to California, pushing for wider wolf recovery, a goal shared by the full spectrum of conservation groups, hardliners to mainstreamers, and some landowners with large holdings, such as billionaire Ted Turner.

Indians have stepped up, too. The Nez Perce tribe in Idaho, which long advocated for the return of the wolf, is monitoring the packs in that state, tracking them from the air and ground and helping separate them from livestock (HCN, 2/26/01: Return of the natives). In Arizona, the White Mountain Apache tribe is taking the lead in restoring the Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest (see story page 14).

The momentum has wildlife advocates almost euphoric: "Our goal is to have wolves the length of the Rockies, from New Mexico to the Arctic. And conceivably, in New England. Then we would really have restored wolves to North America," says France of the Wildlife Federation.

Unwanted: Wolves

Not that everyone is smiling. Randy Richard was in the woods near Fortine, Mont., in March, hunting mountain lions with his pair of bluetick hounds, when wolves interrupted the hunt. According to Richard, his hounds had a lion treed when a pack of five wolves swept in, killing one dog and severely tearing up the other.

Describing how the wolves did in his 90-pound blue-tick named Crow, Richard told the Daily Inter Lake newspaper, "they ... dragged him, castrated him, disemboweled him and consumed him. The only thing that was left was the forward part of his shoulders, his front legs, his neck and his head."

Around the same time, different wolves, repeatedly raiding ranches or ranchettes in the Ninemile Valley in northwest Montana, killed four pet llamas. In May, another wolf attacked two cocker spaniels inside their yard on a ranchette in southcentral Montana, near Livingston. The wolf tried to break one spaniel's neck, leaving gashes on its shoulders that required surgery. The angry owner told the Associated Press, "We don't need wolves in civilization."

In the political realm, ranchers continue to wield considerable power in Western states, and generally they still don't like wolves running around. Complaints also come from some hunters and hunting outfitters, who believe the wolves leave fewer elk and other game for them to go after. Most biologists insist wolves are no danger to overall game populations, but some hunters find fewer elk where they like to hunt.

Wolves "are bloodthirsty killers, and they're decimating our elk herds," says Ron Gillette, an outfitter and motel owner in Stanley, Idaho, who's running quarter-page ads in newspapers around the state, demanding that all wolves be removed. He tells the Associated Press that wolves are "cruel, vicious, land piranhas, wildlife terrorists."

But by most measures, there have been fewer problems than expected, so far. The wolf recovery effort in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has cost about $17 million in total spending by federal agencies, including the National Park Service, and even that looks like a good deal: More than 100,000 people have gotten to see wild wolves in Yellowstone Park alone, by federal estimate, and wolf-related tourism pumps $20 million a year into the economies of the three states.

"There's a huge boost in outfitter-guided trips" that feature wolf-watching, says Meredith Taylor, a Wyoming Outdoor Council field director who has run an outfitting business for 21 years. Her customers come from around the U.S. and Europe, Australia and South Africa. They want to see wolves in the wild any time of the year, and "if it involves wolves killing elk, they want to see that."

The wolves have also tuned up the wilderness ecosystems, applying natural pressure to elk and other prey, leaving prey carcasses for scavengers ranging from eagles to beetles. With the elk herds more on the move, those grazing impacts have been reduced, making way for re-emergence of willows and aspen.

Even for ranchers, total livestock loss to wolves in the three states has turned out to be a tiny fraction of what's lost to any one of the following: coyotes, bad weather, disease, or even packs of wild dogs.

Wolf predation "can be a big deal" for individual ranches with private pasture or leased public land in wolf territory, though, concedes Ed Bangs, the top federal wolf manager in the region. Yet now there are voices of moderation such as Margaret Soulen Hinson, a third-generation Idaho rancher whose family's ranch near Weiser has been hit the hardest of any in the state. Since wolves were formally brought back in 1995, the ranch has lost 105 sheep to wolf predation.

"I wasn't a proponent of bringing the wolves in, in any way, shape or form," Soulen Hinson says. "But the wolves are here now and we have to learn to live with them. We need to look for common ground."

She's found some with a Defenders of Wildlife program that reimburses ranchers for losses. Administering the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Trust, Defenders has paid her ranch more than $8,000 for the lost sheep.

Recognizing that losses can be hard to prove, especially in rugged forest where people are not tending the stock daily, Defenders has adopted a liberal stance, paying for more damages than the federal wolf managers identify - about $215,000 to 188 ranches in all. In the three Northern Rockies states, from 1995 to the end of 2001, Defenders paid ranchers for a total of 188 head of cattle (mostly calves) and 558 sheep (mostly lambs).

"We don't (find and pay for) every one. We do get most," says Suzanne Laverty, who runs the Defenders wolf program in the Northern Rockies.