Federal Judge Rules the Fish and Wildlife Service's Landmark Wolf Re-Introduction Program in Yellowstone National Park Is IllegalBy ELIZABETH A. DAVIS

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) _ Outfitter Budd Betts can hear wolves howling around his northwestern Wyoming ranch at night. He'd much prefer silence _ and a judge has given him reason to hope the wolves may disappear.

To the cheers of ranchers and the despair of environmental groups, U.S. District Judge William Downes of Casper on Friday ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service's landmark wolf recovery program is illegal.

Downes ordered the removal of dozens of wolves released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho since 1995, saying the effort actually diminished the endangered species protection given to native wolves.

The judge stayed his removal order pending expected appeals from the federal government and environmental groups. One group, Defenders of Wildlife, immediately promised a court battle.

``It is a tragedy even to discuss dismantling the greatest wildlife restoration effort in our nation's history,'' said the group's president, Rodger Schlickeisen.

That's not how Betts and others see it.

``We had a poor hunting season,'' said Betts, who runs his outfitting business from Dubois, a tiny town on the Wind River about 50 miles southeast of Yellowstone. ``You can't blame it all on the wolves, but you can't say they weren't (involved).''

Few topics are more controversial in Western ranching country than wolf restoration, which has been debated since 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was enacted. It required federal agencies to develop recovery plans for wolves and other imperiled wildlife.

Wolves roamed Yellowstone until the 1930s, when they were wiped out by a federal program.

The reintroduction plan evolved from hundreds of hours of public hearings, more than 160,000 written comments and years of scientific study and political wrangling. Its goal is to establish breeding populations of 100 wolves each in the Yellowstone area and central Idaho by 2002.

In 1995 and 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service brought in 66 Canadian gray wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho. The population has grown from 41 to about 90 in Yellowstone, and from 25 to at least 73 in Idaho.

To appease opponents, the government declared the reintroduced animals an ``experimental, nonessential population,'' which means those wolves don't enjoy full protection as an endangered species. Ranchers can try to drive off a wolf that wanders onto their property _ and if they can prove the wolf is attacking their livestock, they can shoot it.

The program prompted lawsuits not only from the Wyoming Farm Bureau, which represents ranchers and farmers, but from others worried about its potential effect on the Endangered Species Act.

Those plaintiffs, including the National Audubon Society, argued that native wolves wander south from Canada and Montana into Yellowstone and Idaho, where they join the experimental population and illegally lose their federal protection.

``The mere fact that (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has) drawn a line which purports to ensure `no geographic overlap' between the existing wolf population in Montana and either of the proposed experimental population areas is insufficient and contrary to law,'' Downes wrote.

``Congress did not intend to allow reduction of (Endangered Species Act) protections to existing natural populations in whole or in part.''

In his order, the judge did not call for removing all wolves from the Yellowstone-Idaho area. Once the reintroduced wolves are removed, Downes wrote, the rules of the Endangered Species Act will apply, forbidding the shooting of wolves for any reason.

Sharon Rose, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, said the ruling was under review. She said the Justice Department would decide whether to appeal.

Hank Fischer, a spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife, said the group was convinced Downes had erred.

``Drastic action like the removal of wolves from Yellowstone seems to make no sense,'' he said. ``I'm sure we will be part of a challenge and will work with every ounce of energy to see the ruling does not stand.''

Near Powell, east of the nation's oldest national park, Denny Smith was all smiles after learning of Downes' decision.

``If they are in the park that's one thing,'' said Smith, who has about 6,000 lambs grazing on his land in the summer. ``I believe we should have the right to protect our livestock and not fear repercussions from our federal government.

``I'm not anti-wolf,'' added Smith, who also is a Republican state legislator. ``But the extremists have pushed this down our throat.''