Ask Mike DeCapita for his favorite wolf story, and he'll tell you about a timber wolf that traveled more than 500 miles from Michigan to Missouri -- an odyssey in which the animal "somehow found a way to get across the Mississippi River."

After rambling from Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula through Wisconsin and Minnesota, the radio-collared and ear-tagged wolf took a sudden left turn toward Iowa and wound up in north-central Missouri, where his location was pinpointed by biologists as part of a 2000 wolf-monitoring study.

"This particular wolf crossed highways, bridges, railroad tracks, you name it," said DeCapita, who has been chasing Midwestern wolves and other wild creatures for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the past 28 years. "That's an astounding story, and it shows the kind of intelligence and resourcefulness that has allowed these [threatened] animals to survive during the past 20 or 30 years."

But DeCapita will also note that the timber wolves (also known as gray wolves) of the upper Midwest have been doing more than surviving in recent years. They're actually thriving -- so much so that the Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to downgrade them from "endangered" to "threatened" in Michigan and Wisconsin within the next few weeks.

After coming close to extinction in the first half of the 20th century, the gray wolves of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have rebounded impressively since the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. During the past three decades, the wolf population in these three states has soared to more than 3,100, with about 2,600 ranging freely in the wilds of northern Minnesota and the remainder divided equally between the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan.

"The return of the gray wolf is a wonderful symbol of the success of wildlife recovery programs in this country," said Jim Hammill, a longtime wolf expert for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Although wolves have also been resurgent in the northern Rockies, the Midwest has seen the most dramatic increase in raw numbers. L. David Mech, an internationally renowned, Minnesota-based wolf researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, estimated that the number of wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin is now increasing 25 percent to 30 percent a year. "There's no doubt that wolves are doing well these days, and especially in Minnesota," said Mech, the founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.

But Mech also warned that the recent expansion of the wolf population poses a growing threat to livestock farmers in some areas of the Midwest.

"If we're going to have more animals on the landscape, we have to manage them very carefully," he said. "For a lot of farmers, this is an important issue, since the law prohibits them from killing wolves, even when they lose a cow to a wolf pack."

Chuck Becker, who raises dairy cattle in a wilderness area in northeastern Minnesota frequented by the animals, said the wolf resurgence had cost him "a lot of money" in recent years. "This is our livelihood," he said, "and when you find your cow ripped to shreds, that really hurts. A dairy cow can easily cost a farmer up to $1,800."

Although Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota compensate farmers for livestock lost to depredating wolves, some Midwestern farmers have complained that the payments are usually far too small to make up their losses. "Wolves kill cattle every single day in Minnesota," Becker said, "and there isn't much we can do about it."

Officials recorded 178 claims of cattle lost to wolves in the state last year, and only 97 verified claims. But "we agree with the farmers that they're having additional losses to wolves," said Bill Paul, assistant state director in Minnesota of wildlife services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although he remains anxious about his cows, Becker said he was a "great admirer" of the gray wolf -- a powerful predator that can run 35 to 40 mph and smell at least 100 times more keenly than humans. He described a recent incident in which a wolf pack showed up at his farm nightly for a while to "tease" two horses that he kept in a fenced pasture.

"The wolves would come in every night and run them, just for fun," Becker said. "They weren't hungry, and they never attacked; they just wanted to play."

But Michigan cattleman Frank Wardynski, who manages a herd of 300 cows near Ontonagon, said he didn't find such wolf antics amusing. "One of the biggest problems we face is proving to the [state] wildlife people that we lost a cow to a wolf so we can get compensation," he said. "Believe me, after a pack of wolves gets finished with your animal, there isn't much proof left."

Wardynski said that when Michigan DNR officials questioned his neighbor's report that he had lost a cow to wolves, the neighbor hired an expert to analyze samples of wolf dung from his farmyard. "They admitted that the dung had cow hair all through it -- but the state [DNR] people said that wasn't enough for them," Wardynski said.

"We lose three cows for every one we can prove got eaten by wolves," said the cattleman, "and believe me, that's pretty hard to swallow."

Federal and state officials acknowledge that the wolf resurgence has caused increasing hardship for farmers in both the Midwest and the northern Rockies, and that it is often difficult for state natural resources administrators to positively identify the owner of a farm animal after wolves have devoured it.

"I think it's pretty clear that the DNR needs to be better with our response time when there's an issue involving wolves and livestock," said Pat Lederle, the Michigan DNR's endangered species coordinator. "With the numbers of wolves increasing each year, we've got to strike the right balance. We need additional training for our staff so we can do a better job of managing this species and their relation to livestock producers."

Once the reclassification from endangered to threatened takes place, Michigan and Wisconsin officials will be permitted to exterminate occasional "rogue" wolves that kill livestock. Fish and Wildlife regulations already allow Minnesota, with many more wolves, to use lethal force to eliminate depredating wolves.

Although they are careful to defend the rights of Midwestern farmers, Lederle and other wildlife officials are also quick to point out that wolves present "very little threat to human safety." According to a recent study by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, not a single "human death [was] attributed to healthy (non-rabid) wolves" between 1900 and 2000 in North America. In addition, said the study, there have been only 28 documented cases of humans being injured by "aggression from wolves" since 1890 -- even though Alaska and Canada together provide a habitat for more than 60,000 of them.

Wisconsin DNR mammal ecologist Adrian Wydeven noted that wolves provide an important service by helping to keep down the population of deer, beaver and coyote. While estimating that the current recovery program has restored 10 percent to 15 percent of the pre-Columbian Great Lakes wolf population (estimated at 30,000 to 40,000), Wydeven said the animals sometimes provide nature lovers with the thrill of a lifetime: "I get calls all the time from people who report wolf sightings, and many say they'll remember the experience for the rest of their lives."

Pam Troxell, a volunteer coordinator at the nonprofit Timber Wolf Alliance in Ashland, Wis., said she was "enchanted" by the presence of wolves. "One of the activities I enjoy most is conducting a 'howling survey,' " said Troxell. She often drives deep into the heart of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and, after parking on a dirt road at night, wanders a few yards into the trees and cuts loose with a siren-like howl.

Most times, she said, her howling produces nothing more than the cry of a barred owl, which sounds something like: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

But once in a great while, she'll hear a distant, wailing chorus. "It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck," said Troxell, who takes careful notes describing the time and location of the howling for her survey. "There's no thrill on earth like hearing a pack of wolves howl. It's the music of the north country -- wilderness music!"

Gray wolves rest after a meal on Isle Royale, Mich. Officials plan to downgrade their classification from "endangered" to "threatened."