Debbie Miller, a hardy brunette with a butterfly tattoo on her right arm, walks past the family shooting range just outside her kitchen door. She is talking about a recent visitor to her isolated ranch house in the high desert rangeland of Catron County, N.M. "She had been in the yard 10 times in eight weeks," Miller says on a sunny July afternoon. "This was like home for her."

It would, it turns out, be the visitor's final home. Miller's guest wasn't exactly welcome: It was a female Mexican gray wolf that was rearing at least one pup in a den not far from here. The alpha female and her mate and offspring made up the Durango pack, which was released last April onto the national forest as part of a 10-year effort to re-establish the endangered Mexican gray wolf in the wild.

Miller's husband, Mike, was none too happy about the Durango pack's visits. Tall and lean with an ever-present Marlboro protruding from beneath his waxed handlebar mustache, Mike Miller is a cowboy on one of New Mexico's largest spreads, the 275,000-acre Adobe-Slash Ranch. His task is to keep track of several thousand cows scattered across some 64,000 acres for the ranch's owner, Eloy S. Vallina, a wealthy Mexican businessman.

Miller keeps an eye on predators that may threaten livestock, especially the Mexican gray wolf. After being hunted to the brink of extinction, the wolf is once again roaming the grasslands, mountains and streams of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

So Miller was concerned when the Durango female showed up near his house about a dozen times. Yet instead of trying to scare it off, he did the opposite. On June 21, he branded cattle less than a half-mile from the wolves' den, the enticing aroma of seared flesh surely reaching the pack's super-sensitive nostrils. Miller was, in essence, offering up a cow as a sacrifice.

The government's Mexican gray wolf reintroduction rulebook says that a rancher cannot shoot a wolf simply because she threatens his livestock. But if a single wolf kills three cows or sheep or other domestic animals in a single year, then federal officers may kill or capture the wolf. The wolf Miller had his eye on already had two strikes against her; Miller was hoping for a third.

"We would sacrifice a calf to get a third strike," Miller told High Country News, candidly revealing a tactic that could help ranchers get the upper hand in their protracted, bloody war against the endangered Mexican wolves.

Like similar conflicts across the West, the one over the Mexican gray wolf is part of a much bigger struggle for control of the public lands, a battle that pits the "old" users, such as ranchers, against environmentalists and the federal government. But this battle is bloodier than most, and it takes place at the heart of the seething larger war: Catron County, a rugged, remote place where resentment of the federal government is an integral part of the local culture.

Environmentalists are equally unhappy about the situation, angry at the way a consortium of state, tribal and federal agencies led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is handling the wolf reintroduction. They say the authorities are more concerned with pacifying ranchers, who collectively lose a handful of cattle each year to wolves, than ensuring the successful reintroduction of one of the rarest mammals in North America. Currently, the program has been shooting or removing wolves from the wild at about the same rate as cows are being killed. "You can't recover the Mexican gray wolf with guns and traps, the same measures that were used to nearly exterminate it," says Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.

Ranchers say they have no intention of letting Mexican wolves again roam the landscape to prey on livestock, horses and pets, and maybe even their friends and family. They say environmentalists are using the wolf as a terrorist tactic to force ranchers off public lands they have controlled for decades through grazing leases. "We're not saying kill the wolf. We're saying remove the wolf," says Catron County manager Bill Aymar. "It's not going to end well if they don't remove the wolf."

However you look at it, things aren't going well for the wolves these days. That's partly due to the vehemence of local aversion, which has helped inspire tactics such as Mike Miller's. But critics blame the wolf reintroduction program itself, or at least an aspect that lies at its very foundation. By following political rather than biological protocol, they say, the Fish and Wildlife Service is sabotaging itself: It's dropping genetically weak packs into a hostile landscape where only the strongest have a chance to survive.

The Mexican gray wolf once roamed freely throughout the Southwestern United States and deep into Mexico. But human settlers and wolves have never mixed well. At the behest of ranchers early in the 20th century, the U.S. government began a campaign to exterminate the wolf. And by 1950, all but a handful of Mexican gray wolves had been wiped out.

The killing didn't stop at the border: U.S. officials exported poison and sent American hunters to Mexico to continue the slaughter. By the late 1970s, there were less than 50 wolves left. Absolute extinction was staved off in 1976, when the Mexican gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The listing triggered plans to bring the wolf back from near-extinction through a captive breeding program. Between 1977 and 1980, five wild Mexican gray wolves were captured in Mexico. The progeny of three of those wolves, plus four other purebred Mexican gray wolves already in captivity, have provided the breeding stock for the entire reintroduction effort.

The first 11 wolves were released in March 1998 into the 7,000-square-mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which includes portions of national forests and wilderness areas in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, as well as the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.

Northern Rockies gray wolves had already been successfully reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. There, however, the wolves were protected from conflicts with ranchers. In contrast, the Mexican gray wolves were released directly onto public lands long controlled by the livestock industry. Soon after the first release, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to stop the program. The ranchers lost that skirmish in the courtroom, but in the wild, the wolves seem to be losing the war.

Wildlife managers have issued orders to kill or permanently remove 59 wolves. Most were removed or shot because they were caught feasting on cattle, even though the dead livestock constitute only a tiny fraction of the animals that graze in the wolf recovery area.

Poachers, meanwhile, have shot and killed another 25 wolves. Only two of the shootings have been resolved: One was ruled self-defense and the other resulted in a successful prosecution. The other cases remain under investigation. Meanwhile, last month, another three wolves disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

 If the wolves removed by wildlife agencies and those deliberately killed by poachers had remained on the land, the Mexican gray wolf population would have likely achieved the recovery program's goal of 102 wolves and 18 breeding pairs by the end of 2006. Instead, there are about 40 mature Mexican gray wolves and less than seven breeding pairs.

David Parsons, who once led the wolf reintroduction effort for the Fish and Wildlife Service, says the government is violating the Endangered Species Act by not making progress towards re-establishing the wolf in the wild. Instead, he says, the agency is taking the "path of least resistance," and bowing to the demands of angry ranchers.

"The government should have been looking for innovative solutions that focus on keeping wolves alive and allowing them to survive in the wild rather than focusing on wolf control," says Parsons, who is now the carnivore conservation biologist with The Rewilding Institute, an Albuquerque environmental group that advocates the reintroduction of wolves to their natural habitat throughout North America.

It's nothing short of a miracle that any Mexican gray wolves still exist. By the late 1970s, the subspecies' best hope for survival came down to a single female wolf. The wolf, known as Nina, was pregnant when she was captured in the spring of 1978. She delivered five pups in captivity; the four males survived but the only female pup died. Nina failed to breed during the next three years, and by the spring of 1981, she was almost 9 years old. Biologists feared her reproductive days were over. But Nina gave birth to three female pups that year, saving her species from extinction.

In the mid-1990s, two additional pairs of Mexican gray wolves were added to the breeding program after scientists confirmed that they, too, were pure-blooded stock. There are now approximately 350 Mexican gray wolves held at 47 facilities. But successfully breeding captive wolves is merely the first step in returning the subspecies to the wild. The fact that all the Mexican gray wolves are descended from only three distinct lineages is causing serious problems.

Most of the wolves bred in captivity and released into the wild are Nina's direct descendents. These highly inbred wolves, known as the McBride lineage, typically bear litters of two pups, compared to an expected average litter of five. Three of the nine wolf packs on the ground in late 2006 were pure McBride lineage.

Crossing the McBride line with the other two lineages, the Ghost Ranch and the Aragon, creates healthier wolves that will produce more wild-born pups with each litter, says Arizona State University biology professor Philip Hedrick, who has conducted extensive genetic studies on Mexican gray wolves and played a key role in developing the captive breeding program.

"All Mexican gray wolves are not created equal," he says.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, has been slow to release mixed-lineage wolves into the wild; only five, all belonging to the Aspen pack, have been released into the recovery area in the last three years. Officials say the low number is the result of a management rule that restricts the initial release of wolves to a relatively small area in Arizona. Only after that initial release can a wolf later be recaptured and re-released directly into New Mexico.

The cumbersome rule resulted from a political compromise in the mid-1990s, when the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission announced that it would oppose wolf reintroduction if captive wolves were released directly into the state.

John Morgart, Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican wolf recovery program coordinator, says the rule makes it difficult for the agency to release new wolves. Because there are already established packs in many of the best release sites in Arizona, there's simply not enough room for any newcomers.

At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to remove the few high-value, mixed-lineage wolves that kill cattle, or simply stray beyond the recovery area's boundary. "The genetic mix of a pack does not enter into our decisions to remove animals," says agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown. This has raised doubts over the government's commitment to successful reintroduction. "Sometimes I wonder whether they have the best interests of these wolves in mind," Hedrick says.

Morgart says his agency is working to get genetically valuable wolves into the wild as soon as possible. But he acknowledges that it has yet to establish an optimal genetic mix of wolves. "We have been slowly changing the genetic representation," he says. "We are just not where we should be today."

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