Wolf man John

  NAME

John Morgart 

TITLE

Mexican wolf recovery program coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

HOME BASE

Albuquerque, N.M. 

AGE

53 

HE SAYS

"I've known what I wanted to do with my life ever since I was 3 or 4 years old. I just always knew I wanted to be a wildlife biologist."

John Morgart has one of the toughest jobs in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As the man responsible for ensuring that the endangered Mexican gray wolf makes a comeback, Morgart must reacquaint one of the Southwest's top predators with its former habitat — land that is now cattle country.

Though Yellowstone's gray wolves have a higher public profile, their southwestern cousins — the southernmost subspecies of the gray wolf — may face greater obstacles (HCN, 5/27/02: Wolf at the door). Wolves in the Yellowstone area can roam through millions of undeveloped acres in and near the park; the Mexican wolf population is confined to a federally designated 7,000-square-mile chunk of the Blue Range, a rugged land straddling two national forests and the Arizona-New Mexico border.

And though wolves in the Northern Rockies have had their share of run-ins with ranchers, the extended grazing season and the abundance of federal grazing allotments in the Mexican wolf recovery zone increase the risk of conflicts. Of the 11 wolves initially released in the Southwest, five have been shot, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Officials believe most were accidentally shot by hunters or ranchers who mistook the wolves for coyotes, which can be killed legally, although wolf advocates suspect some of the killings were intentional.

First reintroduced in 1998, the Mexican wolf population got off to a rough start. Unlike the Yellowstone wolves, which were captured from wild parks in Canada, the Mexican wolves released into the Blue Range had grown up in captivity and were naive about the ways of the wild, Morgart says.

"They had no idea, in some respects, how to act," says Morgart. "They had to figure out what it's like to be a wild animal."

Biologically speaking, things are starting to look up for the Southwest's wolves. The population now numbers about 50, and the animals are successfully reproducing. While no official recovery goals have been set, Morgart says the agency is aiming for roughly 100 wolves.

The biggest challenge, Morgart says, is helping wolves and their human neighbors to co-exist peacefully.

But Morgart, who became the program's third coordinator last fall, is no stranger to politically messy wildlife recovery efforts. He has worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service for two decades, serving throughout the West, including Alaska, where he studied grizzly bears. Most recently, Morgart headed an effort to bring back the endangered Sonoran pronghorn in southern Arizona. The fleet-footed ungulate, which once numbers many thousands and now tally just 39 animals, struggle under stresses ranging from drought to the impacts of stepped-up Border Patrol activity. Still, Morgart, a tall man with graying hair and a quiet, practical demeanor, says that wolves "raise more passion than anything I've ever worked on."

Wolf-policy watchers say Morgart has already made his mark on the program by talking with the locals one-on-one — a departure from the approach of past managers.

Morgart also helped develop a proposal in February that would place a one-year moratorium on the release of "naive" wolves bred in captivity. the draft policy, which was crafted collaboratively by federal and state agencies, tribes and others, has been met with tepid support from ranchers and chagrin from environmental groups, who see the moratorium as a concession to ranchers.

But despite the controversy, the Southwest needs wolves, Morgart says. "I think we've reached a point in our own development that we've realized having complete ecosystems — or as complete as possible — is important," he says. "By returning these animals, we're one step closer to recreating what we've basically lost."

The author writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.