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Dean Strand wonders if all the fuss isn't turning wolves into pets.

"Seems like they're getting tamer and tamer," Strand said during a Tuesday night hearing on Montana's proposed wolf management plan. "They're just like bears. Nine out of 10 will run the other way. They don't want anything to do with people. But that 10th one will want to look in your pocket to see if you have anything to eat."

Strand's suggestion to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks: Let wolves run free on public land. But when they cross onto private property, scare them away - or shoot them.

"Are we going to raise wolves as pets or as wild animals?" he asked. "That's what we've got to decide."

About 100 Missoula area residents gave up the balmy spring evening to listen as state wolf biologist Carolyn Sime explained Montana's proposal for taking over wolf management from the federal government once wolves are taken off the list of threatened and endangered species.

Then, in small groups, FWP biologists and game wardens took dictation as all who came had a chance to say how - or if - the state should manage the species it once sought to eliminate.

FWP's recently released draft environmental impact statement on wolf management listed five alternative management approaches, Sime said. The most conservative would leave wolf management to the federal government, protected by the Endangered Species Act, kept in check by federal Wildlife Services agents.

All the other proposals put the state of Montana in charge of wolf management. FWP's preferred plan would use an "adaptive management" strategy, Sime said. If there were more than 15 breeding pairs of wolves, the rules would be relaxed to allow hunting and trapping. If there were less than 15 pairs, hunting would not be allowed and wildlife officials would be slower to shoot problem wolves.

Ranchers would have the right to defend their livestock against attacking or threatening wolves, though, and they'd be compensated for the loss if wolves did kill cows or sheep.

Those at Tuesday night's hearing - one of 13 scheduled statewide - represented the full range of opinions. Strand's group included Dick Ramberg, who until recently ranched in the Ninemile Valley and had wolves on his land.

"It was a continual hassle," he said. "I lost three calves and a yearling steer right in the corral. Nothing bothered those wolves. They'd come up right close to the house. They killed a bull elk out in my hay field; the next day there was nothing left but a piece of backbone and a few ribs. They cleaned it right up."

Ramberg favors the state taking over wolf management, and worries that lawsuits or politics could hold up the transfer of management responsibility from federal to state agencies.

But Turah resident John Wolverton said he wants management to stay with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until there is better scientific information on the relationship between predators and prey - wolves and the deer and elk they dine on.

"I also don't like this idea of imposing an artificial number on the wolf population," he said. "How did they even pick 15 as the right number of breeding pairs?"

"You need to be able to respond to changes in the environment," added Missoula resident Adam Switalski. "Why not let nature decide the numbers? Why not let the wolves decide their own carrying capacity?"

"With the millions of acres we have in Montana, I think we have room for more than 15 breeding pairs of wolves," he said. "We're allotting more than a million acres per wolf pack."

If you're interested

The state of Montana's draft EIS on wolf management is available via the FWP Web site at www.fwp.state.mt.us. Public comments will be accepted through May 12. Write to: Wolf Plan EIS, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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