But now, after a decade of environmentalist-rancher-government wrangling over Mexican wolves, it may be only two years before the real thing roams the Southwest's woodlands and canyons.
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to bring back the Mexican wolf in southern New Mexico and southeast Arizona. The federal government trapped the last wolf 35 years ago. The proposal kicks off what may be a contentious debate, including 14 public hearings, of which 10 will be in the heart of cattle country. Eventually, 120 wolves would occupy 6,000 square miles in the two states.
While they have no illusions about winning rancher support for the wolf, federal officials say they won't back down on reintroduction unless opponents get a court order blocking it or Congress guts or stops funding the Endangered Species Act. At most, only 35 cows will die annually from wolf attacks, the Fish and Wildlife Service predicts.
"We're committed to this plan," said David Parsons, the head of the agency's Mexican wolf recovery program. "We believe it's the right thing to do."
One proposed reintroduction site lies in southern New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range. The other area, in southeast Arizona's Blue Range, spills into New Mexico's Grant and Catron counties, where ranchers already have declared war on the feds over other issues. Several ranchers last month warned they'll shoot wolves on sight.
"This may be the straw that breaks the camel's back here," said Zeno Kiehne, whose ranch depends on public lands along the Arizona-New Mexico border. "I think people would kill wolves and hope they don't get caught. It will be another threat to our survival."
The Mexican wolf program has been counted dead before. In October 1987, Michael Spear, then-Southwest regional director for the agency, told the Albuquerque Tribune that, "The wolf reintroduction program, as of now, is terminated" because of opposition from White Sands.
He soon relented, but four months later, a White Sands spokesman said, "We consider that (reintroduction) a dead issue." Around the same time, the chairman of the state Game and Fish Commission told a national TV interviewer he didn't think Mexican wolves were smart enough to survive in the wild.
In the early 1990s, an environmental lawsuit forced the wolf program back on track. Even in southwest New Mexico, the wolf has some support. Last winter, 400 people cheered at a Silver City wolf education program sponsored by the environmental group, Gila Watch.
David Henderson, the National Audubon Society's southwest representative, greeted the new federal proposal as a vindication, but was concerned that New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici would try to kill the program by blocking funds.
"We're seeing that in today's Congress, endangered species aren't treated with a very high level of respect," Henderson said.
For a copy of the draft environmental impact statement or to send in comments by Oct. 31, write David R. Parsons, Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, USFWS, P.O. Box 1306, Albuquerque, NM 87103-1306.
* Tony Davis
Tony Davis reports from Albuquerque, New Mexico.