Last chance for the Lobo
Mexican wolves caught in the crossfire of the battle over public lands.
But rather than move forward, the Fish and
Wildlife Service continues to fall further behind. In early
November, it removed the alpha male from the most genetically
valuable pack on the ground. That pack - the Aspen pack - has been
responsible for at least eight confirmed cattle and domestic animal
kills since January, most on the Adobe-Slash ranch. In early
December, the agency captured and permanently removed the Aspen
pack's alpha female and a yearling female as well as three pups.
(The pups may be re-released sometime in the future.)
"They are breaking up the most successful pack with the best
genetic composition," says Parsons, the former recovery
The diminishing outlook for the Mexican gray
wolf has caused an uproar among wildlife scientists, who say the
Fish and Wildlife Service needs to revise its management rules to
emphasize protecting the wolves ahead of livestock interests. The
American Society of Mammalogists passed a resolution last June
calling for the agency to "suspend all predator control directed at
Mexican gray wolves at least until the interim 100-wolf goal of the
current reintroduction program has been achieved."
Environmentalists also want the rules changed to allow wolves to
roam without arbitrary boundary restrictions. Wolves that stray
outside the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area are trapped and either
permanently removed from the wild or relocated within the recovery
zone. More wolves are trapped for leaving the recovery area than
for any other reason. Trapping stray wolves increases human contact
with the wolves and drives up the cost of the program.
"It is the only terrestrial mammal managed by the Fish and Wildlife
Service that is supposed to stay within political boundaries," says
Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
addition, environmentalists want ranchers to remove the carcasses
of the thousands of cattle that die each year from non-wolf-related
causes, rather than simply let them rot on the land. Robinson,
Parsons and other wildlife biologists believe the wolves that
scavenge those carcasses may develop an attraction for beef,
although the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service disagree.
Perhaps most of all,
environmentalists want the direct release of captive wolves into
But resolutions, scientific studies and
demands by environmentalists calling for more protection of the
Mexican gray wolf mean little to the ranchers living in Catron
County's tortuous terrain. Its slot canyons and precipitous cliffs
have long provided shelter to resisters, from Butch Cassidy to
For others, Catron
County's labyrinth of streams cascading down mountains beneath a
crisp sky have triggered radical transformation, from wolf-hunter
to conservationist, a path once traversed by the father of modern
environmental ethics, Aldo Leopold.
County consists of 7,000 square miles of rolling
grasslands, pinon- and juniper-covered mesas and mountains dotted
with ponderosa pines. About 3,500 people, roughly 76 percent of
them white, live in the county's small towns and ranches. On
average, they earn about $14,000 a year, from an economy based
mostly on natural resources, such as ranching and hunting. A
quarter of the residents live in poverty.
gets substantial government assistance despite strong local
opposition to federal interference. The U.S. Forest Service and
Bureau of Land Management control more than 70 percent of the
county's land, and a lot of folks are unhappy about that - some
even believe the feds illegally seized control of the state's
public lands. Anti-government ideologues espousing "county
supremacy" took control of Catron County's government for a time in
the early 1990s. Since then, the county has passed 21 ordinances
attempting to supersede federal authority on public lands as well
as a county land-use plan that called federal agents "a clear and
present danger." In 1994, it passed a resolution urging every
household head to own a firearm.
The county government
also passed a resolution in the early 1990s predicting "much
physical violence" if the federal government tried to reduce the
number of cattle on public land. Then-Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt responded by backing down from his proposed grazing
Not surprisingly, then, Catron County has long
opposed the reintroduction or protection of endangered species,
such as the Mexican spotted owl, within its boundaries. The Mexican
gray wolf is just the latest symbol of unwanted federal
To many Catron County residents, in fact,
the wolf is a physical threat as well as a symbol of government
"One day, one of our children is going to be
attacked and all these people are going to say it's not the wolf's
fault," says former county Sheriff Jess Carey, the Catron County
wolf interaction coordinator.
Carey, who owns a gun
supply shop, isn't shy about his rabid opposition to the wolf.
"We don't have protection for our children and our
families and our economic viability," he says. "It's way beyond
whether you're for the wolf or against the wolf. We are in survival
Carey says he's investigated 200 wolf-related
complaints from Catron County residents since April 2006. He says
children and adults suffer psychological trauma from the loss of
their animals to wolves, and many have become afraid to go outside.
If a wolf attacks a human in Catron County, Carey says,
the result will be swift and deadly for the wolf. "If a child is
attacked or killed, this program will be over," he promises.
There is no denying that some Mexican gray wolves have
become highly habituated to humans. Such wolves repeatedly approach
homesteads and have sometimes killed pets, including horses.
"Part of this habituation is caused by Fish and Wildlife
Service management of the wolves," Carey says. Government employees
constantly handle the wolves and provide supplemental feeding in
the wild, Carey says, causing the wolves to become "food
Worries that Mexican gray wolves will
attack a human skyrocketed recently in the wake of a coroner's
inquest into the death of a 22-year-old man in Canada two years
ago. In early November, a jury reached a controversial verdict
blaming wolves for Kenton Carnegie's death, making it the first
documented instance of wild wolves killing a human in North
Several prominent wolf biologists were critical
of the jury's findings, saying the jurors either ignored or didn't
see evidence that black bears actually killed the man, and that
wolves may have later scavenged the body.
Wildlife Service biologist John Slown says the government
acknowledges that wolves have the ability to injure or kill humans.
He says wild animals, including large non-predators such as elk and
moose, can be "extremely dangerous if habituated to humans or
cornered." But the tragic death of Carnegie does not change the
fact that wolf attacks on humans remain very rare: "Healthy wild
wolves retain a natural fear of humans and will typically avoid any
contact," Slown says.
Wolf reintroduction managers spend
considerable time and money hazing wolves that have repeated
interactions with people. Field personnel will use everything from
rocks to rubber bullets to encourage wolves to avoid humans and
homesteads. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced a new
program that will allow people with government permission to shoot
wolves with paint balls.
"We try and change the animal's
behavior so it learns that taking cattle and being in association
with man is not a good thing," says Morgart. "Oftentimes it works.
Oftentimes it doesn't."
There is no doubt that wolves
will continue to kill livestock. But Mexican wolves are paying a
disproportionate price for killing a relative handful of cows and
Mexican gray wolves are known to have killed 110
head of cattle in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area between March
1998 and October 2007, according to Fish and Wildlife Service
records. That's only slightly more than 10 cows each year, out of
the approximately 35,000 head that roam largely unattended across
more than 4.4 million of acres of public land. Wolves have had no
economic impact on the local cattle industry, according to the
Mexican Gray Wolf Blue Range Reintroduction Project Five
Far more cattle die each year from
a host of other causes. Private wildlife economists contracted by
the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that more than 1,300 head
of cattle grazing in the wolf recovery area die each year from
causes other than wolf predation. According to the Cambridge,
Mass.-based Industrial Economics Inc., wolf kills account for
between .3 and 2.5 percent of all cattle losses in the recovery
Ranchers say the numbers are skewed. "You only find
about one out of every eight that they kill," says Catron County
manager Bill Aymar, while Adobe-Slash Ranch manager Gene Whetten
says the ratio is one out of every six. But even when the ranchers'
numbers are used, wolves amount to a relatively small-scale killer.
To mitigate the ranchers' financial losses, Defenders of
Wildlife voluntarily compensates them for wolf-killed livestock.
Defenders pays 100 percent of the market value for verified losses,
and 50 percent for "probable" losses. Defenders has paid ranchers
in Arizona and New Mexico $98,000 for the loss of 148 livestock and
domestic animals since 1998.
It's uncertain exactly how
many cattle Mexican wolves kill each year, but scientists have a
good understanding of what the wild wolves generally eat - and beef
is far down the menu. A peer-reviewed study of wild Mexican gray
wolf scat found that the wolves' diet consists of 73 percent elk,
16 percent other ungulates, 5 percent small mammals and 4 percent
cattle, with the remainder coming from birds, insects and
vegetation. The amount of beef in their diet includes meat
scavenged from carcasses as well as livestock killed by wolves.
But even though the wolves clearly
prefer elk, they have not had a detrimental impact on elk herds.
Flyovers in late October counted 14,000 to 18,000 elk in the
greater Gila region.
"At this point, they are not having
any noticeable effect on the elk population,'' New Mexico Game
Commissioner M.H. "Dutch'' Salmon of Silver City told the
Associated Press. "In fact, the number of elk has increased since
the wolves were introduced."
Ranch has been a black hole for Mexican gray wolves. At
least 21 wolves have been shot or permanently removed from the wild
for preying on cattle on the ranch, according to records compiled
by the Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups.
Eloy Vallina, the Adobe-Slash's owner, once participated
in the Mexican gray wolf captive-breeding program on his wildlife
ranch in Chihuahua; he was dropped from the program for failing to
abide by breeding protocol. Vallina bought the Adobe-Slash in the
mid-1990s and turned over its day-to-day operations to Gene
Whetten, a cousin of one of his business partners. Vallina could
not be reached for comment for this story.
full-time employee is Mike Miller, who lives with his wife, Debbie,
and their teenaged daughter, Micha, in a cramped one-story ranch
house in the northeast corner of the Gila National Forest. Their
home sits in the middle of a vast range that is also home to large
elk herds as well as up to 13,000 head of cattle. On the Arizona
ranches in the wolf recovery zone, cattle are only grazed
seasonally. But in New Mexico, ranchers have cattle year-round on
the Gila National Forest, providing wolves with a steady supply of
Miller's worried about more than his
cattle; he's also worried about his family. Micha became the poster
child of the anti-wolf movement after a local doctor diagnosed her
with post-traumatic stress caused by repeated encounters with
wolves. Last summer, during a floor debate over a motion to kill
funding for the reintroduction program, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce,
R-N.M., displayed her picture on a large poster as an example of a
victim of the wolf. The motion failed on June 26 by a 258-172
The Miller family recognized the Durango alpha
female when she reappeared near their home last May; she'd been
around their house the previous autumn. Her mate notched up his
third strike for killing cattle and was shot by government hunters
on Nov. 22, 2006.
Days before killing her mate,
government trappers captured the Durango female, who had recorded
her second strike for killing cattle. She was held in captivity for
several months until she mated with a new alpha male. Wildlife
officials released the pair on April 25, about 40 miles away from
the Millers' ranch house. They expected the female to have pups
within a day of her release and thought that would keep her far
from the Millers' property.
Instead, the Durango pack
made a beeline to the Millers' outpost and set up a den a few miles
away. The Millers said their dogs would frequently bark in the
middle of the night when the wolves were around. Wolves are
frequently attracted to domestic dogs and will sometimes attack and
kill them. Meanwhile, the county's human inhabitants were making
the atmosphere for wolves even less friendly.
2007, Catron County passed an ordinance allowing the county to
"take" wolves that pose a threat to humans, domestic animals and
livestock. The ordinance, county manager Aymar says, allows the
county "to do whatever it takes to deal with the problem." Asked if
that included shooting a wolf, Aymar says, "That would be a last
resort." On June 21, Catron County demanded that the Fish and
Wildlife Service remove the Durango female because it was
habituated to humans and posed a threat to the Millers.
The same day, Miller branded cows close to the Durango pack's den,
triggering the series of events that led to the Durango female's
death. Late that night, Miller says, "chaos" erupted in the pasture
as the wolves began stalking cattle, some of which were bloodied by
the branding hours earlier. An inspection of the pasture failed to
turn up any wounded, let alone dead, cattle, he says.
next day, the Catron County commission notified the Fish and
Wildlife Service of its intention to trap the female wolf. Agency
spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown said the county was notified that "any
action taken by the Commission to effect the removal of a wolf ...
constitutes violations of federal law."
officials ignored the warning. Instead, they dispatched Jess Carey
to the Miller homestead with orders to trap the wolf. "We had no
intention of harming the wolf or killing the wolf," Carey says.
"Our intention was to catch the wolf without harm and try to
protect this family."
On June 23, federal law enforcement
officers saw Carey setting up a trap and intervened. Carey stopped
trying to trap the wolf, and no charges were filed. But the end was
fast approaching for the Durango wolf.
That same day,
Miller says he branded another cow, this one preparing to calve.
Miller says he knew the wolves were nearby: Both Durango wolves
were wearing radio collars, and the Fish and Wildlife Service had
provided Miller a radio receiver to monitor the wolves -
theoretically to keep them away from cattle.
But in this
case, a freshly branded cow about to calve was left unattended near
"We left her out there," Miller says.