YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- Cliff Browne huddles against the cold air, his camera lens pointed toward two distant dots on a hazy horizon. Daylight has broken, and the gray wolves are showing themselves.
Browne's voice fills with excitement as he begins counting them, but rises to little more than a whisper as he angles his head for a better view. ''I love it!'' he says. ''I love it!''
Several wolves run across the snowy landscape before disappearing from view into the trees. Another takes it slow, plopping down in the powder. One releases a lonesome howl.
Here on the northeast corner of the nation's first national park, patient wildlife enthusiasts like Browne have had a front-row seat to watch the gray wolves sometimes controversial return to Yellowstone.
Wolf watchers will spend hours a day -- some like Browne are out here almost every day during winter -- to catch even a glimpse of the animals. And their luck is generally good this time of year. Some wolves are black, helping them stand out. Elk fill the river bottomland near the road, providing at least the hope of a meal for wolf packs.
The wolf watchers slowly traverse the roads winding through the park's Lamar Valley, carefully scanning the hills and fields. They maintain vigil for long periods at roadside turnouts, bundled in layers of warm clothing, scrunched over tripods, with their binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes surveying areas the wolves are known to frequent.
Some days are better than others, said Browne, of Cooke City, Mont., who has made a living selling the images of wolves he captures on film.
''You've got to put hours in. And, sometimes, you might be here all day long and never see anything,'' he said. ''Sometimes, you think, 'What a wasted day.' But that's part of the game.''
Other days are a gold mine. Ed and Kathleen Dunn came from Chicago, hoping to see just one wolf. They were not disappointed. They picked a day when the wolves cooperated, getting close enough for a good view.
One, visible in the rugged distance without binoculars, silenced their anxious chatter with a howl that carried on the wind.
''That wolf up there on the hill, when she turned around and started to howl ...,'' Kathleen Dunn said.
''It was really almost chilling,'' Ed Dunn finishes.
People come to Yellowstone expecting to see wildlife. But only in recent years has the public had any real chance of seeing gray wolves in their natural setting.
Once eradicated from the park, the wolves were brought back under a contentious reintroduction program that began in 1995. They now number more than 130 within the park, and total more than 570 in the three-state region of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Nearly 90 percent of the wolves -- including all of those in the park -- can be traced directly to the reintroduction program.
But their return has not been without critics. Ranchers blame wolves for livestock losses and occasional attacks on domestic pets.
Defenders of Wildlife, which compensates ranchers for lost livestock to wolves, has paid out more than $206,000 to 180 ranchers since 1987.
While there are critics, Doug Smith, who heads the park's wolf project, said those who care about the wolves or even make wolf watching a hobby see something special in the animals, something worth braving cold mountain winters to witness.
''Wolves are considered now to be the symbol of wildness,'' he said. ''There's kind of magic in their eyes. There's some kind of mysteriousness that people find alluring and worthy of protection.''
Researcher Rick McIntyre is so taken with the wolves that he spends days off from his seasonal work with Yellowstone's wolf program to watch them.
He notes such things as their interactions and movements and speaks of observed playfulness or of a recent elk kill. He sometimes uses a hand-held radio to communicate with other wolf watchers in the park.
''There is so much fascinating behavior you can see here,'' McIntyre said. ''In the rest of the world, it's very, very difficult to see a wolf. Here, there are times when they're visible almost all day long.''
There are distinct packs within the park. Which wolves a spotter sees depends greatly on where he's looking.
The Lamar Valley region, though, is home to several packs and is considered the premier area for spotting the animals, said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The wolves' movements can be unpredictable. One of the Yellowstone packs, known as the Nez Perce pack, left the park last year and traveled as far as eastern Idaho. It killed a dog and got into a fight with another wolf pack before eventually returning to Yellowstone.
For many, wolf watching is a matter of chance -- being in the right place at the right time. Seeing a gray wolf -- or more -- may be as easy for a tourist as simply stopping and joining a line of vehicles and people with binoculars, cameras or spotting scopes pressed to their eyes. Newcomers have been treated to sightings by veteran wolf watchers willing to share peeks through their equipment.
For others, wolf watching is a true hobby, a family activity that draws a wide range of enthusiasts. Sally and Larry Miller of Great Falls, Mont., try to make it to the park a few times each year.
''It's worth it if you can spot the wolves and watch their social behaviors,'' Sally Miller said.
Watching the wolf watchers themselves also can be entertaining.
Word that wolves or the elk they eat are moving, or that a wolf is detected elsewhere can send watchers rushing to their vehicles in their own pack.
When there is a sighting, some wolf watchers get quiet. Others gesture animatedly at what they see through their binoculars or scopes -- which may appear only as a dark, moving blob to a novice with an unaided eye.
''To me,'' Sally Miller said, ''they bring back the balance of nature that's been missing for so long from the park.''
Seeing them in the wild still moves even seasoned wolf watchers like McIntyre.
''It's always very exciting, always a big deal when you see them, whether it's the first time or the 100th time,'' he said. ''It never gets old.''
On the Net:
Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/
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