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Predators' Comeback Challenges Man


Killing off the West's predators was relatively simple. Living with them may be the bigger challenge.

Many Westerners love their wildlife; being close to nature is part of why they live where they do. Even so, conflicts are inevitable, given the spread of predators and the West's fast-growing human population.

Here's a look at how the West's big three predators are faring:

* Mountain lions: Two California women were killed in separate attacks by mountain lions in 1994, the first deaths there since 1909. It sparked debate over the state's ban on cougar hunting, which has boosted the cat's estimated population from fewer than 3,000 in 1972 to between 4,000 and 6,000 today.

Despite the two fatalities and other nonfatal maulings in the last 10 years--not to mention regular reports of vanishing pets--California voters in March soundly rejected an initiative that would have cleared the way to end the hunting ban.

Mountain lion sightings also have increased in most other Western states, but biologists can't tell whether that means more lions, more people seeing them, or both.

* Grizzly bears. Fewer than 1,000 grizzlies survive in the lower 48 states, confined to wild pockets of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington.

They are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but efforts to rebuild grizzly populations have plodded along for years, meeting resistance from those who fear the ferocious predator.

The focus now is on a recovery plan, still in draft form, for central Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains. One option, backed by a surprising coalition of environmentalists and the timber industry, would import grizzlies from British Columbia. The transplants would be considered an experimental population, making it easier to kill problem bears.

* Wolves. Recently reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, wolves are fiercer in the imagination than in reality. Wolf advocates say there is no documented case of a wild, healthy wolf fatally attacking someone in America.

Ranchers worried about predation on livestock still oppose the wolves' return, but so far the wolves are winning:

Of 66 Canadian wolves released in Idaho and Yellowstone since January 1995, 13 have died, including four illegally shot and one killed by officials for preying on sheep. But about 53 to 63 pups have been born, making further releases unnecessary, biologists say.

Now federal officials are turning to New Mexico and Arizona, where they propose to release captive Mexican wolves, eradicated in the U.S. wild more than 50 years ago.

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