That passion will always exist, but I'm hoping over the next few years it might ease down to a gentle roar. The 1995 reintroduction of gray wolves into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has been highly successful from the viewpoint of most biologists. Whether you think that was the worst or best idea anybody ever had, wolves look to be a permanent part of the landscape in the northern Rockies.
Wolf populations in all three states are well above the minimum thresholds for recovery set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Jan. 29, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho and handing control of them over to those states.
That's great news. I hope Wyoming and the FWS can hammer out their differences so wolves can be returned to state control there as well. Each of us - the public - now has 60 days from Jan. 29 to submit written comments on this delisting proposal.
Since the day wolves were reintroduced, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has strongly encouraged the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove wolves from the endangered species list as soon as possible and transfer management responsibility to the states. The Elk Foundation applauds both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the individual states for all the hard work they've put in over the last 12 years to reach this point.
In my experience, the most efficient elk hunter is not the wolf. And much as I hate to say it, it's not me, either. If you're betting on who brings home the elk steaks, put your money on a mountain lion.
That's why I think it's worth looking at how Montana manages its lions. In 1978, the state changed the status of mountain lions from a year-round bountied animal to a licensed big game species, with specific seasons and quotas. Since then, annual harvest has gone from 50 to 450 per year.
The range occupied by lions doubled. Yet during that same time, elk and deer populations flourished all across that expanded range. Hunting opportunity for elk, deer and lions is excellent. That's because the state teamed up with hunters as managers. This is where we need to get to with wolves.
Give the states the ability to set seasons and region-by-region quotas for wolves in the same way they do for lions and black bears - and for elk and deer - and we can have healthy populations of both prey and predators. Combined, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are now home to about 350,000 elk and 1,240 wolves. Elk-hunting success, in terms of both total harvest and mature bulls, is strong.
That doesn't mean that in areas where wolves are active there aren't fewer elk - or that the hunting hasn't gotten tougher. It means we should manage wolves in those places.
Wolves can and will impact game populations. But as someone who loves to hunt in wild country, I'm convinced that the greatest threat to both our elk populations and the future of hunting is . . . us, 300 million of us.
If you care about the future of elk and elk country, I urge you to speak up for state control of wolf management and support the conservation groups working so future generations have places to hike, hunt and enjoy.
* WALKER S. "BUDDY" SMITH JR. is board chairman of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Missoula, Mont.