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The 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the greater Yellowstone area has generated enormous controversy. The Montana Stockgrowers Association recently began weighing in with radio ads suggesting the cattle industry is severely impacted by the presence of these predators. While articles in the Chronicle have provided statistics indicating the number of livestock killed by wolves is but a tiny fraction of losses from weather, disease, coyotes, domestic dogs and other factors, the loss of even a single cow is no doubt aggravating to an operator, and wolves have impacted some herds. Rather than debate predator losses, I'd like to offer a perspective that's received far less consideration: the positive economic benefit wolves have for our region.

Our tourism-related business, Yellowstone Safari Company, provides wildlife and cultural history field trips throughout the greater Yellowstone area. A professional wildlife biologist guides clients. I've offered this service for 12 years, so it's safe to say that I have a feeling for the eco-tourism market. In addition to providing jobs and serving the public, one of the goals of this business is to directly demonstrate the non-hunting market value of wildlife. People often ask our guides how we feel, and how other people feel, about the presence of wolves. We would be remiss if we did not point out that people pay us to show them wolves. Like everyone else, we have our own inherent, unavoidable biases. The reality is, there are as many perspectives as individuals. We do know that the vast majority of people love wildlife, as evidenced by U.S. Fish and Wildlife surveys and the array of television shows available for national consumption. In particular, people love predators.

There are a number of reasons for this. In general, predators are more intelligent, rare, powerful and more socially complex than typical prey animals. Consequently, when wolves are mentioned in national news, people tend to listen. We all know that the media loves controversy, so they're happy to mention wolves a lot. The old adage, "Any publicity is good publicity," applies. The more the word "Yellowstone" is in the news, whether in relation to wolves or not, the more the non-resident public will think about our region of the world and possibly come to visit.

I can guarantee that any morning will find people in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley focused on wolves. A few of these people pay Yellowstone Safari Company to help them experience these and other animals. But, keep in mind, tourists come not only for wolves, but also for what they represent: Whether true or false, in the minds of the general public, wolves represent a wild and complete environment. If we perceive of wolves as a "product" for visitors to experience, our wildlife and tourism resource base has expanded.

The restoration of the wolf to the greater Yellowstone region has been a boon to all regional tourism operators and peripheral businesses. Services such as ours obviously benefit, but not all tourists use guides. All tourists must, however, have a place to sleep, eat and shop. Shopping is the number one activity tourists participate in and, based on inventory in regional gift shops, they buy lots of wolf icons.

According to a story in the November/December 2002 issue of Montana Outdoors, hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers spend more than $1 billion in Montana, supporting thousands of jobs. Wildlife viewing alone reaps almost $100 million more for Montana businesses than hunting, according to the article. It also cited a study concluding that wildlife viewing is the single most popular outdoor activity among Montana's visitors.

For the record: I also guide elk hunters in wolf country for a regional outfitter. As usual, wolves generate controversy around the dinner table, but I've heard numerous hunters say it was a neat experience to hear or see wolves. Many look forward to the day when delisting will allow them to harvest a wolf as a trophy animal.

The restoration of wolves has been, and will continue to be, controversial. When the Montana Stockgrowers speak, I'll be listening. I can only hope that everyone will respect the wildland resources which are uniquely experienced in our area, so rare in the rest of the world, and which provide the economic foundation in which Yellowstone Safari Company and the entire tourism industry are investing.

Ken Sinay is the director of the Yellowstone Safari Company in Bozeman.

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