Last chance for the Lobo
Mexican wolves caught in the crossfire of the battle over public lands.
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."
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 coordinator.
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.
In 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 New Mexico.
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 Geronimo.
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.
Catron 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.
Catron County 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 reforms.
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 interference.
To many Catron County residents, in fact, the wolf is a physical threat as well as a symbol of government tyranny.
"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 mode."
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 conditioned."
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 America.
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.
Fish and 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 calves.
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 Year Review.
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 area.
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."
The Adobe-Slash 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.
Whetten's only 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 vulnerable calves.
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 margin.
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.
In early 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.
The 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."
Catron County 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 the wolves.
"We left her out there," Miller says.
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.
The following sidebar article accompanies this story:
The troubled times of the Mexican wolf A timeline reveals the complicated, ill-fated story of the Mexican wolf in New Mexico.