While sportsmen are concerned about the toll wolves are taking on deer and elk, some researchers say there's a chance that wolves could be a savior to big-game herds by controlling the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Wolves' uncanny ability to spot vulnerable animals may make them the best natural control for the fatal brain malady some biologists fear will invade Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the next few years.
Wasting disease makes deer and elk distracted and unwary as it eats tiny holes in their brains, the Denver Post reported.
"Wolves show up and say, `Let's see what you've got,' " said National Park Service biologist Douglas Smith, who helped lead the program that returned wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996. "And if you don't have it, they laser in on you like a fighter pilot. The things they pick up on are incredibly subtle."
The theory is still unproven, but some say it is worth factoring in to the wolf-reintroduction debate.
Wasting disease was detected in northern Wyoming's Bighorn Basin this year for the first time, and some Wyoming biologists fear CWD will move into the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in the next year or two.
No one has been able to study whether wolves single out CWD-infected animals because the range of predator and disease have never overlapped, so far.
David Mech, a biologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey who is considered one of the world's top wolf experts, cautioned that until wolves and wasting disease actually interact, theories about wolves controlling the spread of the disease are just speculation.
Unlike other predators like mountain lions and coyotes, wolves constantly test potential prey, looking for weakness. This hunting style, Smith said, seems perfectly tailored to removing sick animals.
University of Calgary professor Valerius Geist, an expert on deer and elk, said wolves can remove infected individuals and clean up carcasses that could transmit the disease.
Geist and Princeton University biologist Andrew Dobson theorize that killing off the wolves allowed CWD to take hold in the first place.
A federal predator control program in the 1920s eliminated the last prairie wolves in the region, according to Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Using wolves to manage the disease could be tricky though.
"Emotions against wolves are so strong that I'm not sure this potential benefit, which I agree might be there, would sway the opinions of many folks," retired Wyoming Game and Fish veterinarian Tom Thorne said. "I think it would be a long, long time before people are used to wolves enough to admit they might be doing a bit of good."