They started hunting gray wolves in the high reaches of the Rocky Mountains on Tuesday, the first time in years that people have been allowed to shoot for sport this genetic cousin of man's best friend.
For those who hate wolves and long for the era when they were wiped off the map, and for those who welcomed back this call of the wild, the last few days have revealed some dark feelings in the changing West - and some strength of character as well.
A Republican candidate for governor of Idaho, Rex Rammell, was at a political barbecue last week when somebody brought up the tags used by wolf hunters, and then made a reference to killing the president of the United States.
"Obama tags?" Rammell replied, to laughter, according to an account in The Times-News of Twin Falls. "We'd buy some of those."
In the Idaho of the past, jokes about shooting a president could sometimes be dismissed without consequence. Indeed, the comment was buried in an initial news story about the gathering, and Rammell sloughed it off later, saying on his Web site that "Obama hunting tags was just a joke! Everyone knows Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue tags in Washington, D.C."
Ha-ha. What a knee-slapper, these assassination jokes. And besides, he couldn't hunt down Obama with out-of-state tags. Get it?
This episode was not unlike a town hall meeting last month in the northern California district of Wally Herger, a Republican congressman. When people show up at an event that is supposed to be about health care, and get their applause by proclaiming themselves to be "a proud, right-wing terrorist," as one man did in front of an approving Herger, you know they could care less about defined insurance benefits.
As with wolves, the fear has many faces, and the true source of it is seldom clear.
But what followed in Idaho was rare in a year of endangered civility. The Idaho Republican establishment came down hard on Rammell, condemning the comments of a fringe candidate who channels voices that have found a wide airing in the YouTube age.
Of course, the reaction could be driven by self-interest. For years, Idaho officials have been trying to convince businesses that their state is not a hotbed of hate-filled rubes, gun-toting racists and assorted nut jobs getting their information from Glenn Beck. Tech companies that thrive in the New West metro area of Boise and the outdoor paradise of the north say the state's reputation has severely hurt efforts to recruit ethnic minorities.
But this is a changed state in a quick-stirring part of the country - not necessarily less Republican, but certainly less tolerant of the kind of hate speech that used to flow with warm beer on late nights at the wacko corral. Obama, the candidate, drew about 14,000 people in his appearance in Boise last year - putting it among the largest political gatherings in state history. He got just under 47 percent of the vote in Ada County, the state's most populous.
The wolf hunt has brought out feelings that have less to do with Canis lupus than with something more deep-seated. Gray wolves were exterminated long ago in most Western states, a campaign of blood lust, terror and bounty kills. In some counties it was against the law not to put wolf poison on the fence post. Their return by federal wildlife officials has been such a success that two states, Montana and Idaho, have authorized hunting to keep the numbers in check.
Whether the reintroduced wolf packs - which feast on elk, deer and occasional domestic livestock - can still flourish even with the hunt is an issue now before the courts. But this call to arms against an animal that has been historically misunderstood by most anyone whose name is not St. Francis of Assisi is in part a fear of letting the wild back into Western lands.
Rammell himself is a prime exhibit of a nature-phobe. Until 2007, he made his living in elk ranching, which he calls "a novel agricultural enterprise." Imagine this majestic creature at dawn in a high mountain meadow, in all its glory. Now imagine it inside a fenced-off plot while someone tries to domesticate it into stupidity. That's elk ranching.
As for wolves, Rammell wants them all dead, dead, dead. "I believe wolves need to be eliminated," he says on his Web site. Does it matter to him that they roamed every Western state long before Rex Rammell starting tossing one-liners to red-faced Republicans blowing on their soup at the diner?
Probably not. But judging by the success of tourism built around wolf sightings, the four-legged hunter is back in the West to stay. Still, it would help all concerned if what we talk about when talking about wolves was just that.