STEVENSVILLE - It didn't take long for Marc Cooke to learn that being a vocal advocate for wolves would come at a price.
Not long after he stood up for the first time at a meeting in Helena about two years ago and told a group of ranchers and sportsmen that he liked wolves and wouldn't mind if there were more in the state, the hate mail started arriving.
It was enough to shake him and his wife to the core.
"There was this guy from Lincoln who wrote that he knew where I lived," Cooke said. "He said he knew where I worked. He said, ‘We're going to get you.' "
There was a time when Cooke had his name at the end of his driveway and on his mailbox.
They aren't there any more.
Cooke grew up on the East Coast, the son of a police officer.
"I come from a family of cops," Cooke said. "My father always took me for long walks in the woods. I used to hunt ducks and deer, but I was never really any good at it."
At some point along the way, Cooke said he realized he didn't like to see things suffer and so he put his gun away.
He joined the U.S. Army and became a cook and a driver. In Germany, he met his wife Lorenza, and studied Italian cooking in Switzerland after completing his stint with the military.
After spending some time in his youthful haunts around Cape Cod, the couple moved west, first to Lolo and later to the Stevensville area.
"I always wanted to see a grizzly bear," Cooke said.
He's been employed with the Missoula County Sheriff's Department for the past 11 years.
"They call me wolf man," he said. "There's no animosity there. They all realize this is my passion. That this is what I want to do."
The idea of doing something for wolves had been bouncing around the walls at the couple's home for years.
"I was tired of hearing his bitching," Lorenza said. "I told him if you feel that strongly about it, you need to get involved and do something about it."
Two years ago, Cooke helped found the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. Today, it has five official members scattered across the country and a growing number of people who follow its moves on Facebook. The group is waiting for its official nonprofit status to be approved.
Despite its small membership, the group has made itself known. Cooke has been a fixture at Ravalli County commission meetings when wolves are on the agenda. He has traveled to Helena to make the group's views known there, too.
Often as not, he is the only wolf advocate in the room.
"It was very intimidating at first," he said. "I've spent my life living in a box filled with my colleagues and friends. This has really forced me to step outside of that box."
"I was really nervous about speaking out at first," Cooke said. "I've been in the Bob Marshall literally 30 or 40 feet away from a grizzly bear, but I was less afraid then than the first time I had to speak to a government official."
Cooke believes the key to any contentious debate is to remain respectful, even when others are not.
"Getting into someone's face never resolves anything," he said.
Cooke said the people he represents are worried about the erosion of environmental protections created by the economic downturn in the United States. The congressional challenge to the Endangered Species Act to delist wolves is an example of that.
"I think people are really struggling in this country and corporations are saying they will create jobs, but some of the environmental laws are going to have to change," he said.
Cooke believes federal biologists made a mistake by allowing people to think wolves would be recovered when there were 30 packs in the three-state area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. He wishes too that wolves would not have been reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.
"It would have been better to have let them disperse naturally," Cooke said.
And Cooke thinks the only people that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks listens to about wolves are sportsmen and livestock producers.
"They pay me lip service," Cooke said.
Cooke readily admits that he's not a Montana native, but said he doesn't remember the military asking him for those credentials when he joined.
"I served my country," he said. "I will live any place I want. As long as I pay my taxes and follow the laws, it shouldn't matter where I was born and raised."
In this country, Cooke said people are allowed to voice their opinions. They should be able to do that in a civil way.
Wolves are something Cooke said he has cared about since he was a young boy and he decided he can't stand on the sidelines any longer.
"Hope is paralysis," Cooke said. "You can have a toothache and hope that it will go away, but nothing is going to happen until you take action and go the dentist.
"You can go to the plate and take three strikes, but if you want something to happen, you have to swing the bat."
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.