IRON RIVER, Mich. (AP) _ For centuries the gray wolf thrived in the forests of the Upper Great Lakes, revered by aboriginal tribes as spiritual kin.

Then came European settlers, whose cultural heritage abounded with fairy tales depicting wolves as evil. Enraged by attacks on livestock, encouraged by government bounties, they nearly drove the wolf to extinction. By 1973, only six were believed to remain in Michigan's north woods.

Now the wolf is making what biologists consider a remarkably strong recovery, thanks to migration and strict protection laws. Equally pleasing to scientists, many residents are welcoming the creature back to an area where once it was routinely shot on sight.

``It's really an incredible story,'' said Jim Hammill, wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. ``They were almost hunted and hounded out of existence, and now they've come back of their own accord. And people are allowing them to survive.''

A 1990 survey and public meetings three years later showed overwhelming support for the return of the gray wolf, also known as the Eastern timber wolf, the department says.

But some farmers worry that wolves will pursue calves and lambs if cold winters decimate the population of their favorite prey _ whitetail deer.

``If they start harming my animals, I intend to do something about it whether I have the DNR's permission or not,'' Chippewa County cattle farmer Bruce Berkompas said.

Aware of such concerns, DNR director K.L. Cool in December approved a wolf recovery plan developed by a team of state and federal wildlife officials. Among other things, it promises quick investigations of suspected livestock kills.

Where wolves make repeated attacks, they'll be captured and relocated. Farmers can get advice on techniques for scaring away wolves, such as flashing lights, sirens and guard dogs. And the department says it will seek creation of a private compensation fund.

``Even in farming areas, wolves prefer to prey on wild game,'' Hammill said. ``We don't think there's going to be a major problem with livestock.''

Last winter the department estimated that 112 wolves in at least 20 packs were scattered across the Upper Peninsula. Twenty-four more wolves lived on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, where for decades researchers have studied their interaction with moose.

Assuming normal birth and death rates last year, the mainland population likely exceeds 150, according to Hammill. Seven years ago, there was only one known pack totaling 17 animals. Many of the new arrivals migrated from neighboring states or traversed ice bridges from Ontario.

They've been spotted in nearly every Upper Peninsula county but mostly in the southern tier, where deer are most plentiful. Biologists say it's probably just a matter of time before the wolves cross into the Lower Peninsula in search of new habitat.

The wolf's recovery is a regional phenomenon; Wisconsin and Minnesota's numbers are rising, too. Scientists say it is happening naturally, through migration and births _ unlike in Idaho and Wyoming, where reintroduction efforts have prompted bitter protests and court battles.

The absence of direct government intervention is probably one reason why Upper Peninsula residents are accepting the wolf's return, said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club in Michigan.

``People are recognizing that this is an exciting and unique aspect of U.P. life, part of what makes it special,'' she said.

Still, she said, the wolf would have disappeared if not for the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to kill, harass or otherwise harm the wolf. Michigan law provides similar protections.

``Yes, they're coming back on their own but it's essential to have strong public policies,'' Woiwode said. ``When you stop allowing people to treat them as vermin ... it changes the whole dynamic.''

Even Berkompas, the cattle farmer, said he can accept wolves as neighbors as long as the government doesn't boost the population through artificial means.

The wolf could be classified as a recovered species in two to five years if its population keeps growing, said Paul Burke, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis.

Still, the recovery plan recommends keeping the wolf on the state endangered list until its winter population reaches 200 or more for five consecutive years. Scientists believe the Upper Peninsula can support 800 to 1,000 wolves.

The plan's long-term goal is keeping the population healthy and stable. Some controlled kills may eventually be needed to keep the wolf from outgrowing its habitat.

The plan calls for an education campaign to teach people how to co-exist with wolves. It recommends steps to preserve habitat for packs, whose territories generally range from 42 to 100 square miles, according to studies in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

While not proposing large ``sanctuaries'' that would be off-limits to humans, the plan does suggest protecting some denning areas where mothers give birth.

And it endorses ``linkage zones'' across the upper Great Lakes where wolves and other animals could travel without interference, an approach used for grizzly bears in Western states.

Finally, it urges the Department of Natural Resources to continue studying the wolf population, including tracking them by land and air.

The agency wants to fit at least one wolf in every pack with a radio collar. Thus far, only four of Michigan's 20 known packs have a collared member.

On a recent chilly morning, Hammill boarded a single-engine airplane in Iron River to check on a couple of female pups fitted with collars last summer. They're part of a five-member pack.

As the plane neared the Iron-Gogebic county line, headphones attached to a radio receiver picked up pulsating beeps transmitted by the collars. Hammill directed pilot Bob Loo toward a thick grove of conifer trees.

The plane descended to 700 feet and circled several times, but the elusive wolves stayed hidden.

Still, Hammill verified that the pups were alive and noted their location _ valuable information for the monitoring program.

``It's wonderful to see these animals return after so many years of persecution,'' Hammill said. ``They're fierce predators, of course, but they really have a curious and gentle temperament. There's no record in North America of them attacking a person.''