That night, the Durango wolves found their mark. They shredded the mother cow and newborn calf in a feeding frenzy. Carey found the remains the next day, and notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, which confirmed that wolves had killed the cow and calf.

The Durango female was slapped with her third strike. Because she was of low genetic value, Fish and Wildlife officials issued an order to "lethally remove" her on July 3 rather than trapping her and placing her in permanent captivity. Federal hunters shot the wolf on July 5, moments before a New Mexico Game and Fish officer arrived with orders not to kill her.

The killing of the Durango wolf outraged New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who directed the state Game and Fish Department to exercise its authority as a member of the consortium of agencies managing the reintroduction program and suspend the killing of wolves in New Mexico. But Richardson's power is limited, because the Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately makes the call on how and when wolves are removed from the wild.

Miller's interview with High Country News, describing how he deliberately sacrificed a cow in order to have a wolf removed from the wild, is the first time a rancher has discussed such activities with the press.

When told about Miller's comments, John Morgart, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican gray wolf recovery program coordinator, said he had never before heard or seen evidence of such a thing. Morgart says he has asked federal criminal investigators to look into Miller's actions in the matter.

The death of the wolf was yet another costly blow to the $14 million Mexican gray wolf recovery program. Meanwhile, the Adobe-Slash ranch received $2,400 in compensation for its cow and calf from Defenders of Wildlife; the ranch has received $15,300 since 2001 for wolf-caused losses, more than any other ranch in the Mexican gray wolf recovery area.

Craig Miller, the southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, says "it is deeply disturbing" that some ranchers appear to be abusing the compensation program and collecting funds for livestock that have been deliberately sacrificed to get rid of wolves. "Sadly, a few ranchers are flagrantly abusing that trust, which harms not only the wolves but the reputation of all ranchers."

But Adobe-Slash manager Gene Whetten says his ranch has not sacrificed cows to get wolves removed. "There is no way to set a cow up to be killed," he says. Whetten says wolves wander through herds of cows all the time and usually leave them alone.

"They just kill when they are hungry," he says. "Wolves do what wolves do."

The fight over the Mexican gray wolf is more than just a struggle over how many cows and elk wolves may kill and whether a human being may be next. The overarching battle is for control of the public land.

New Mexico ranchers typically believe that the wolf program is part of an effort by environmentalists to force them off the public land they now control through long-term grazing leases. "If you're interested in removing people from a rural area, putting wolves on the land is what you want," says Carey.

For environmentalists, the priority is to get the predators back on the land, regardless of the cost to the cattle industry.

"Ranchers have had an advantage for generations," says Robin Silver, board chair of the Center for Biological Diversity. "But the reality is as more people are using public lands, more people are becoming advocates for public lands and want to see predators like the Mexican gray wolves restored. Livestock grazing is not a compatible use. Not in the arid West."

One proposal backed by environmentalists is for the federal government to pay ranchers to forfeit their grazing permits on public lands and permanently remove their cattle. The U.S. Forest Service manages most of the public land in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.

"The Forest Service would place those (grazing) allotments into permanent retirement for the benefit of biological diversity and those kinds of uses rather than livestock production," says Parsons, the former Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator.

It would cost millions of dollars to buy out grazing leases in the wolf recovery area. But once the cattle were removed, Parsons says, the government would save money, because it would end grazing subsidies that cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year. The removal of cattle from the recovery area would have a negligible impact on U.S. beef production: Less than 3 percent of the beef consumed in the country comes from cattle grazed on public lands in the West.

But ranchers, particularly in Catron County, have made it clear that they have no intention of giving up their grazing rights without a fight. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service employees as well as environmentalists routinely face thinly veiled threats, and there is a palpable fear that violence could break out if the government tries to force the ranchers off the land. Armed ranchers on ATVs routinely patrol Forest Service roads in Catron County, tracking wolves with radio receivers provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite the strong anti-government attitudes in Catron County, the wildlife agency wants to keep the ranches viable. "It's not in the best interest of wildlife, including the wolf, to drive ranchers off the land," says Morgart. If the ranchers sold out to developers, the land would be subdivided, and human encounters with wolves and other wildlife would increase, rather than decrease, Morgart says.

Hoping to bridge the gap between ranchers and environmentalists, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a program to build tolerance for wolves. The plan would increase the amount of money currently available to compensate ranchers for losses, and would also help ranchers fund more intensive management of cattle by deploying more range riders and guard dogs. The evolving plan also includes a financial incentive for ranchers to reduce the number of cattle killed by wolves.

Local ranchers, including Whetten, say they're willing to support the program as long as there are restrictions on the number of wolves released. "We would allow a certain amount of wolves on our property and they (the Fish and Wildlife Service) would have to pay us to do that," Whetten says. "But (the agency) is going to have to limit the amount of wolves that are on there instead of just keep dumping them in here."

Environmentalists, however, are unlikely to back a program that pays ranchers while limiting the number of wolves on the public lands.

The sharp divisions between ranchers and environmentalists became more clearly pronounced this fall as the Fish and Wildlife Service held a series of meetings on rewriting the wolf reintroduction rules. The meetings have attracted large and contentious crowds across Arizona and New Mexico. How the rules are written and implemented will likely determine the fate of the Mexican gray wolf, and ultimately the control of millions of acres of public land in the region.

"Wolves can make it in the wild if it's just a matter of biology," says Morgart. "Wolves are easy."

The real question comes down to values, Morgart says.

"What values do we as individuals in society place on wolves and how much are we willing to tolerate them on the landscape?"

After last July's shooting, the Durango female's mate had to rear their pup. And by late September, the Durango male, pup and a new female from the nearby Luna pack were lurking around the Millers' homestead as well as the Adobe-Slash ranch headquarters seven miles away.

Once again, Catron County officials told the Fish and Wildlife Service that highly "habituated" wolves had returned to the Millers' property and demanded - in an ominous tone - that the Durango male be permanently removed from the field.

"If (the Durango male) is permanently removed from the wild now, it will live to provide genetic input for the Mexican gray wolf program," said an Oct. 11 letter signed by Catron County Commissioner Ed Wehrheim. "In the wild, but dead, it can contribute nothing."

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not remove the Durango male. But something, or someone, apparently has.

On Nov. 1, a routine aerial reconnaissance failed to detect the radio signal from the Durango wolves' radio collars. A second flyover the next day also found no signal. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Slown says it is very unusual to lose radio contact with the wolves.

Searchers combed the area by foot, by car and by airplane. As of mid-December, there was still no sign of the Durango pack. Their fate is unknown.

John Dougherty is a High Country News contributing editor.