The release of 26 British Columbia wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park seemed a howling success until biologists were forced to kill a wolf after it bit a biologist's thumb to the bone.


The alpha male bit John Weaver during a stopover in Missoula, Mont., the day before the animal was to be released in the Idaho wilderness south of Stanley. Weaver was bit while trying to close a cage door after the animal had bent and broken part of the cage.


Ed Bangs, the wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ordered the wolf killed. He said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy and Idaho's public health code required killing the wolf in order to examine its brain tissue for rabies. All captured wolves, however, had been tested once for rabies and brucellosis.


"The chances of rabies are minute, but it's not worth the risk," said Bangs. "We never anticipated this situation." His agency, he added, is reviewing its policy.


Weaver's concern was that politicians opposed to the wolf program would make hay of the incident. "That's the last thing the wolves need," he said.


The killing is a disappointment in a recovery program that the Fish and Wildlife Service calls outstanding, despite funding cutbacks. Bangs said if the wolves brought in this year do as well as last year's group, a transplant set for next year may be scuttled. With the addition of 17 wolves this year, the Yellowstone National Park population rises to 38; the 20 wolves set free in central Idaho boosts their number to 32.


Not everyone is pleased with the program's success. The Wyoming Farm Bureau hopes to halt the reintroduction through the courts. "If we win, all the wolves are going back to Canada," Steve Lechner, a Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer representing the Farm Bureau, told the Idaho Falls Post-Register.


While not opposing the reintroduction, a Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund lawsuit asks that naturally occuring wolves in Central Idaho continue to receive full protection under the Endangered Species Act.


Nor do the Canadians necessarily support the relocation of wolves from their forests to the U.S. A British Columbia group called Friends of the Wolf offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could set free wolves captured by U.S. biologists. Until wolves are protected in the province, the group says, they refuse to support their capture and export.


For more information, contact Ed Bangs, Wolf Recovery Coordinator, 100 N. Park, Suite #320, Helena, MT 59601 (406/449-5225) or Friends of the Wolf, c/o Cove Mallard Coalition, P.O. Box 8968, Moscow, ID 83843 (208/882-9755).


* Dustin Solberg, HCN intern





Mark Matthews in Missoula, Mont., contributed to this report.