Driving through southwestern New Mexico this summer, I passed one of the area’s wolf-proof school bus stops. I’d heard about the enclosures for years and couldn’t resist pulling off Highway 180 onto State Road 32 to check one out in person. More recently, the cages have been featured in a new documentary film, “Wolves in Government Clothing.”
Walking up the gravel road, I tried to envision leaving my own seven year-old at the remote intersection. Even if I did drop her and drive off – with no homes close by, I doubt many kids hoof it there – I wouldn’t leave her in the cage.
Peering into the eight- or ten-foot high wood and wire enclosure, we found its bench smashed and the dirt floor covered with trash. To be fair, school had been out for over a month. But the flimsy, trash-filled box didn’t convince me it sheltered many schoolchildren. The first of the cages were built in 2007 by a local school district; a picture of children looking out from a cage near Reserve, N.M. appeared in newspapers at the time. Both then and now, the cages smell of a publicity stunt.
A vocal group of citizens in southwestern New Mexico have long fought the Mexican gray wolf recovery program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners – a program that hasn’t actually been a resounding success. Despite more than a decade of planning and 15 years of on-the-ground work, only 75 wolves roam the recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico. Thanks to political wrangling, local opposition, a pledge to remove or kill wolves that prey on livestock, and a highly restricted recovery area, the program remains far below its goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2006.
Yet despite the relatively small population of wolves, it’s clear from signs along Highway 180 that local communities are still outraged by the reintroduction of the predators. And now, at a time when FWS is considering removing wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a right-wing “media consultant” has come along to try to influence that debate and to drive a deeper wedge between rural people and government employees.
David Spady’s new film, “Wolves in Government’s Clothing” is anti-wolf propaganda in its purest form. On the film’s website, the Montana-born Spady describes himself as an outdoorsman and filmmaker who has traveled the West looking for people who have been victims to wolves, government agencies and the ESA. A public affairs and media consultant, Spady is also an advisor to Salem Communication Corporation, which owns and operates about 100 “mostly Christian” radio stations, and he’s also the California director of the Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group which was founded in 2004 by David Koch and Koch Industries board member, Richard Fink.
Narrating the film’s trailer, Spady says that when government agencies become like predators, they behave much like wolves: Both are apex predators with no predators of their own, have no respect for boundaries, prey on the weak, work together in packs and use deceptive tactics. It’s a pretty dramatic narrative. But it’s the sort that resonates in Catron County’s rural communities, despite the fact that 54 percent of the county’s population is employed in government and 20 percent are federal employees, earning the county’s highest wages.
In the film’s trailer, a single mom of four says she shouldn’t have to move because wolves have more rights than humans. (The mother, Heather Hardy, has been upset about wolves for a while; she’s quoted in a 2005 Albuquerque Journal story.) Her teenaged daughter appears inside an enclosure – one that looks a lot hardier and cleaner than the one I saw this summer. Kids sit inside the enclosures to protect themselves from a wolf that watches them from the field nearby, she says: “Every kid on the bus has seen it.”
Unlike bear or mountain lion attacks, which make the news every once in a while, confirmed wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare in North America, even in Alaska and Canada where the wolf populations are larger.
To learn more about wolf behavior, I called biologist Maggie Dwire, a FWS Mexican wolf recovery coordinator. Dwire’s been working with wolves for about 15 years. She recalls being alone in a captive-breeding pen at two in the morning, surrounded by wolves in the same pen, as she pushed a wheelbarrow full of meat. That didn’t worry her. Expect her to walk past a rattlesnake? That’s another matter completely. “My snake friends will say, ‘it’s not coiled, it’s not acting aggressive,’” she says. Nothing will convince her to go near that snake. It’s kind of like that with wolves, she says. “When people tell me they’re afraid, my best response is: I believe you.”
As for the wolf watching those kids at the bus stop? “That wouldn’t be typical behavior,” she says. No one has complained to FWS about a wolf threatening schoolchildren. If someone did complain, the recovery team would visit the area, observe if an animal is watching the children, and determine if it’s a wolf. Were human health or safety ever threatened or challenged, says Dwire, the wolf would be removed. Between 1998 and 2012, for example, a total of 71 Mexican gray wolves were removed just for threatening livestock.
Unlike Spady, Dwire doesn’t have a deep, dramatic voice. But she’s not all woo-woo about the canines either.
“People like to romanticize the wolf, you know, say they live in really close family groups; they only hunt the weak, sick, old and young; and that they serve as overseers of the whole ecosystem,” she says. “People like to view wolves as supreme spiritual beings or as demonic killers that kill for sport and surplus. Really, it’s somewhere in the middle.”
To report incidents of wolf harassment, people can call a 24-hour hotline: 1-800-352-0700.
Laura Paskus is a contributor to High Country News and an independent writer, editor and radio reporter based in New Mexico.