WASHINGTON - Packs of northern gray wolves could begin roaming Olympic National Park for the first time in more than six decades under a plan that has the powerful though tentative support of U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks.
On Monday, Dicks, D-Bremerton, and the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife are to announce plans for a "wolf summit" in April to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of introducing the northern gray wolf onto the Olympic Peninsula, where it once lived.
But the idea already has triggered outrage among local residents and officeholders.
Dicks, who has yet to give his full endorsement to wolves in the Olympics, nevertheless said he sees the proposal having wide-ranging pluses, from boosting eco-tourism to providing a natural control on the proliferation of plant-eating mountain goats in the park, where a controversial eradication effort temporarily has been halted.
"The goats might not be dancing in the flora and fauna if the wolves are snapping at their feet," Dicks said. His position on the Interior subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee gives him the potential to order reintroduction of wolves to the federal park, which is in his congressional district.
Dicks envisions airlifting 50 to 100 wolves from Alaska or Canada into the park within a few years and having Congress earmark several hundred thousand dollars as soon as this year to jump-start the bureaucratic-review process.
Homesteaders and the federal government systematically killed the northern gray wolf on the Olympic Peninsula between 1890 and 1930, and naturalists have been hoping for years that the wolf would someday return to the park.
The only study on the topic, written by Evergreen State College graduate students in 1975 and funded by the National Science Foundation, determined wolves could survive in the Olympics because:
-- The human population was low enough.
-- The carnivorous wolves would have enough prey, such as deer and Roosevelt elk, for food.
-- The 2 million acres in public lands were sufficient room for the wide-ranging wolf.
-- Road density was low enough to limit encounters between wolves and humans.
Seattle native Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, which is based in Washington, D.C., decided to put reintroduction of wolves to the Olympics atop his agenda this year after an enthusiastic response to a similar plan for the Adirondacks in New York.
"Symbolically, getting American society to make amends with the wolf is one of the most important things you can do for wildlife conservation," said Schlickeisen, whose group has made wolf reintroduction its signature issue. "I feel the momentum building."
But Marv Chastain, who lives on the outskirts of the park, hopes to slow that momentum.
"We don't need four-legged predators any more than Seattle needs two-legged predators. It's the same deal. It is terror," said Chastain, who heads a private-property group near Port Angeles called the Citizens Coalition. "There isn't any sense in it. There is no need in it. It is just a cute idea somebody has."
Rick Hert, executive director of the Olympic Peninsula Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he worries that hikers and campers would stay away from the park for fear of wolf attacks.
But naturalists pooh-pooh the potential threat, saying wolves travel in packs and usually are skittish of humans.
Other objections might come from hunters, who might complain about competition with wolves for elk and deer, and ranchers fearful of attacks on livestock. But ranchers are not expected to pose the kind of obstacles to wolf reintroduction raised near Yellowstone National Park; ranching in the Olympics makes up a far smaller part of the economy than it does near Yellowstone.
Despite any skepticism, Dicks said he has backing to pursue the plan from Department of Interior officials, including George Frampton, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Olympic National Park Superintendent David Morris indicated cautious support for the plan.
"We would have to walk awfully carefully through this process, work with the landowners, make sure that the biology was there and work with local officials," Morris said.
So interested is the congressman in the wolf idea that he traveled to Algonquin Park in Canada this month on a nocturnal wolf-tracking adventure during which, he said, wolf packs responded to his simulated howls.
"I howled, and the wolves responded, not just one, the whole pack. There's an affinity," said Dicks. "I think they were saying, `We want to get back to the Olympics.' "
Politically, the wolf proposal poses both risks and potential benefits for Dicks.
Although the plan might win him some boos from local residents, it likely would win him plaudits among environmentally minded voters in more-populous parts of his district. That might help repair his reputation among conservationists, who were outraged at his initial support last year for salvage logging in old-growth forests, a position he later reversed.
As for introducing wolves, "I can't see there being a huge fight over this," said Tim McNulty, vice president of an advocacy group called Olympic Park Associates.
"But virtually everything that Olympic National Park does in terms of management gets them in trouble with the local population. There seems to be a ready-and-willing population ready to rear up (in opposition) no matter what the park tries to do."