In the fall of 1917, Stanley P. Young rode into the Canello Hills in southern Arizona, saddlebags packed with the tools of his trade: steel-jawed traps, metal stakes and chains, leather gloves and a bottle of odiferous wolf lure. The hired gun for the Bureau of Biological Survey was following a pair of wolves whose tracks wandered back and forth across the Mexican border.
Young, who later became national chief of
predator control for the agency, wouldn't succeed without a
struggle. The wolf that stepped into his leghold trap in subsequent
days pulled the trap loose from the ground and fled through a
brushy ravine, fighting off Young's dogs. She would have escaped
had Young not caught up to her on horseback, killing her with a
shot from his Colt revolver.
According to Young,
she was the first Mexican wolf in Arizona killed by federal
trappers in a campaign that, by the 1930s, had eliminated breeding
populations of the wolf from the Southwest. Wolves continued to
cross the border from Mexico into the 1970s, but by 1980 they were
thought to have disappeared from the wild.
Leopold, in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, wrote of shooting
a wolf in Arizona's Blue Range. Many years later, he came to
respect the "fierce green fire" in the eyes of the dying animal and
to understand the critical role predators play in the
It has taken half a century, but Leopold's
philosophy has led the federal government to turn from
extermination to restoration. Last month, the Southwest again
resonated with the ululations of the Mexican
While the wolves' return has the support of
many in the region, questions remain. Some wolf advocates say the
reintroduction area is too small to allow the animals to thrive.
Meanwhile, in rural areas, fear of the wolf still lingers, and some
question whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knows what sort
of animal it is dealing
It almost never
Both sides will soon get some answers to
their questions. On January 26, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark
helped carry a wolf kennel to a holding pen in Arizona's Blue Range
near the New Mexico border. The kennel was one of three, containing
a pair of Mexican wolves and their pup.
up in this country, and always had the sense that something was
missing," Babbitt told reporters. "We've got to make this work.
This is just the beginning of the beginning." Later the same week,
biologists delivered a second wolf family into holding pens nearby,
to be followed by a third in coming weeks.
wolves will acclimate for six to eight weeks before being released
into a 7,000 square-mile "recovery zone" straddling the Arizona-New
Mexico border on the Apache and Gila national forests. The area is
a world of rocky red bluffs, precipitous canyons, juniper-scented
mesas and upland forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir - sort
of like southern Utah with clothes on. The Fish and Wildlife
Service hopes the wolves will increase to 100, at which point they
can be taken off the endangered species list.
the Mexican wolves do survive in the wild, it will be a near
miracle. At one point, the U.S. population was down to a few
scattered animals in zoos. Then the species got a powerful ally:
the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
With this law on
the books, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned to a veteran
Mexican wolf trapper named Roy McBride, with the hope that he could
find enough animals still in the wild to start a captive breeding
program. McBride, who had started trapping wolves for Mexican
ranchers in the late 1950s, was to capture wolves in Mexico and
bring them back alive to the United States. From 1978 to 1980,
McBride said, "When ranchers would call me with a wolf complaint
I'd go ahead and catch it."
These last wolves,
wary of traps and poison, were few and far between. He was able to
capture only seven, with four surviving to enter the captive
Fish and Wildlife mixed zoo
wolves with wild ones to deepen the species' shallow gene pool. The
program succeeded in producing pups, but in 1987, the agency
suspended breeding because of opposition from state officials.
Biologists separated males and females, and it looked as if the
species was to go extinct behind bars.
1990, a lawsuit from the ad hoc Wolf Action Group forced federal
officials to reunite the genders. And over the years, with prodding
and threats of more litigation, the Fish and Wildlife Service once
again began moving toward reintroduction.
Holaday, 75, is one of the environmentalists who pushed for the
wolf's return. After retiring from a corporate career, Holaday
founded the all-volunteer group Preserve Arizona Wolves (PAWS) in
1988 to educate the public. "There was no organized support for
Mexican wolves in Arizona," she says. "It seemed totally
With the wolf's return looming, activists
are excited but also apprehensive. "Fish and Wildlife always wants
the ability to over-manage a population, especially in the first
years," says long-time New Mexico wolf supporter Martin Heinrich,
who would prefer greater freedom for the
Heinrich argues that the boundaries of
the 7,000 square-mile recovery zone have more to do with politics
than ecology. If the species is to survive, he says, "We're going
to have to allow wolves to disperse outside of the recovery zone
south into the Peloncillos and into the mountains of northern
But according to David Parsons, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican wolf recovery leader, the
boundaries will be strictly enforced. Each wolf will wear a radio
collar so that it can be tracked by plane or truck, and animals
that stray outside the recovery zone will be captured and returned,
or held in captivity.
"There is significant
concern that if wolves were returned, they'd occupy all suitable
habitat in the Southwest," says Parsons, "so we made a decision to
put some limits on the recovery."
worry that ranching interests will dominate wolf management.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has the final say over the
wolves' fate, it is delegating much of the on-the-ground
responsibility to Arizona and New Mexico. Assisting in day-to-day
management will be a committee that includes county, state and
tribal officials - groups that opposed reintroduction or preferred
that it take place away from their bailiwick - as well as the
Forest Service and Wildlife Services (Animal Damage Control's
Bill Van Pelt of the Arizona
Department of Game and Fish expects U.S. Fish and Wildlife to heed
local interests. If the federal agency doesn't, he says,
"politically they'd be slaughtered."
concern is the wolves' "experimental nonessential" status, which
allows ranchers to shoot wolves that kill livestock on private
land. Once there are at least six breeding pairs in the region,
ranchers will also be able to acquire permits to kill wolves that
prey on livestock on public-land grazing
The same experimental nonessential
designation caused a federal judge to rule the reintroduction of
wolves in Yellowstone and Idaho illegal last December because of
the mixing of reintroduced wolves with naturally occuring wolves
(HCN, 12/22/97). That should not be an issue in the Southwest,
where there have been no confirmed wolf sightings in over 20
While many activists prefer more stringent
Endangered Species Act protection, others, like Holaday of PAWS,
see the experimental nonessential designation as a reasonable
compromise. "There's no way in the world that we would be able to
reintroduce wolves without experimental nonessential
classification," she says. "We have such fierce opposition."
Hugh B. McKeen is the face of that
opposition. McKeen was a Catron County, N.M., commissioner during
that county's attempt to assert its supremacy over federal land
management. He runs cows on the Gila National Forest near the wolf
McKeen says fire suppression and
abundant predators have driven down deer populations on the
national forests. Deer living on private ranches will draw the
wolves into close quarters with livestock and people, he says.
Although biologists insist there is no record of a wild, non-rabid
wolf attacking a human in North America, McKeen is convinced that
people have been killed by wolves. He predicts a child will be
killed by Mexican wolves within a few
"Environmentalists say, "We want to hear
them howl. They have a right to be here." But are those good enough
reasons to disrupt people's lives?" he asks. "Why don't I go to
Albuquerque and tell people, "I go to town for the experience. I
want to see those homeless people on the streets; I want to hear
the sirens, so keep the thugs on the street corners."
Also skeptical is the man who helped make
reintroduction possible: trapper Roy McBride. Today, thanks in part
to McBride's skill, there are 176 Mexican wolves in captivity. But
McBride insists they aren't what Fish and Wildlife says they are.
Many of the zoo wolves in the captive breeding program were
wolf-dog hybrids, he says, and as a result, the agency is about to
introduce hybrid animals into the wild.
agency's David Parsons acknowledges there were questions about
whether some of the captive wolves were dog hybrids, he says the
questions have been answered. "We asked a panel of nationally
recognized genetic experts to look at these animals (the supposed
hybrids) and they matched those (wild animals) Roy caught in
Mexico," says Parsons.
monument to Leopold
When the pens are opened this
spring, 11 Mexican gray wolves will venture into a world much
different from the one their ancestors lived in. Over the years,
grazing and fire suppression have changed the look of the two
The most important change,
however, is that the single greatest reason for their extirpation -
a federal program dedicated to their demise - will no longer be
aimed against them.
But these wolves will have to
be selective. They will have to learn quickly to pull down elk,
deer and javelina, but not cows, and to stay within the bounds of
their legal recovery zone.
If all goes well, and
some of those wolves lope from their holding pens in Arizona into
the eastern part of their new home in New Mexico, they will have to
cross a double lane black-top before reaching the Gila Wilderness.
Next to the highway stands a monument to Aldo
* Michael J.
writes from Pinos Altos, New Mexico. He works for the Southwest
Center for Biological Diversity and is writing a book about the
wolf extermination campaign in Colorado.
* Bobbie Holaday with PAWS at
UPDATE: PAWS has
disbanded and its contact information is no longer valid.
-Eds. November 29, 2004
David Parsons with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at
* Rancher Hugh McKeen at