Northern Rockies ranchers "have thousands of private acres (each); here, we have hundreds," says Tackman, whose own ranch includes just 70 private acres. "And a lot of it up there is irrigated, so they can grow a lot of hay and run a lot of cattle."

The year-round presence of cattle increases the likelihood that a wolf will augment its typical elk-meat diet with livestock. It also makes for a landscape significantly shaped by cattle – a condition that, environmentalists say, keeps the Gila from realizing its wild potential.

"Our vision is to make the Gila one of the best-protected landscapes in all of North America," says John Horning, WildEarth Guardian's executive director. A slight man with arrestingly blue eyes, Horning cut his teeth as an activist here 15 years ago. The first lawsuit he ever filed, back in 1996, argued that the Forest Service failed to analyze the ecological consequences of issuing grazing permits. Over the next six years, he estimates he filed half a dozen lawsuits on the Gila and Arizona's neighboring Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

"It came from a place of deep frustration about deep impacts on the ground," recalls Horning, sitting at the conference table in WildEarth Guardians' pueblo-revival-style office building near downtown Santa Fe. "There were places in the Gila that were … just grazed to the bone. And to add insult to injury, they were habitat for endangered fish and birds, Gila trout, Apache trout, a dozen or so endangered species. We brought a ton of litigation that was trying to remove that threat."

Horning's fight was personal: Aldo Leopold, one of his conservation idols, whose tenure as a federal forester in the Gila in the 1920s influenced his famous land ethic, convinced the federal government to create the nation's first wilderness area here – 40 years before Congress passed the Wilderness Act.

WildEarth Guardians won some battles and lost others, but "about six or seven years ago, we decided to make a strategic shift in how we would approach grazing," Horning says. "Basically, the divide we went over was recognizing that grazing, though it's a privilege on public lands, from a strategic perspective could be treated as a right, and that therefore it's compensable. And if we were to compensate ranchers (for retiring grazing permits) it would provide us common ground with them in potentially moving forward a new conservation vision for the greater Gila."

So Horning, who grew up on the edge of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and Bird, who has a master's in conservation biology from New Mexico State University, quietly launched a buyout program. They started by poring over detailed maps of grazing allotments – the same ones they used to plan litigation – looking for those with the best wolf habitat and connectivity to the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas. If enough of the region's 120 or so ranchers accepted buyouts, they reasoned, Mexican wolves would have hundreds of thousands of cattle-free acres to roam without getting shot or relocated, the federal government's response to serious wolf-livestock conflicts. And with about half of the 4.2 million-acre greater Gila qualifying as potential wilderness, grazing retirements could make it easier to lobby Congress for new wilderness designations, providing another layer of landscape protection. Tackman's own allotments include 19,000 acres of wilderness-quality roadless lands.

Through letters, phone calls and face-to-face meetings, Bird and Horning made their pitch, focusing on ranchers who, like Tackman, were ready to get out of the business. (Tackman has tried to sell his permit twice before, once to The Conservation Fund and once to a neighbor.) Over the past several years, a dozen or so ranchers have expressed interest, but progress remains slow. Late last fall, Tackman's deal was still the only one that was a signature and a check away from happening; two others stood waiting in the wings. And Horning and Bird continued to meet resistance from ranchers, Forest Service officials and even the potential donors who were underwriting the buyouts.

"The big challenge is getting enough ranchers," Bird says. "I've gotta get 10 at least. But they want to see others doing it (before they'll commit). They don't want to be the first to go."

Even if it weren't run by a hard-hitting environmental group, a grazing buyout program in the Gila would likely encounter resistance. For the past four decades, Catron County, which includes much of the Gila ecosystem in New Mexico but has fewer than 4,000 residents, has figured prominently in the rural West's so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a loosely organized movement that resists environmental regulation and federal authority over public lands. In the early 1990s, fourth-generation rancher Kit Laney refused a Forest Service order to remove his cattle from the Diamond Bar allotment in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wildernesses, warning that if federal agents tried to remove them, Catron County supporters would greet them with guns. In November 2004, Laney was sentenced to five months in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting a Forest Service official and obstructing a court order.

Many locals opposed the Mexican wolf reintroduction program even before the U.S. Fish and Wildflife Service transported seven from a breeding facility in Mexico and released them into Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in 1998. (Back then, New Mexico barred the release of wolves in the state, although the animals often migrate from Arizona.) Since then, the program has remained entangled in controversy. Catron County officials have gone so far as to build "wolf-proof" cages around school bus stops, ostensibly to protect children. Illegal killings of wolves – 46 so far, with four prosecutions – as well as legal killings by federal wildlife agents have helped keep the predator's population below the government's goal of 100 individuals despite periodic reintroduction of more wolves. Just last fall, someone shot a young male wolf with an arrow in Catron County.

But despite popular perception, the Gila's ranchers are not a social or economic monoculture, and with the average age of permit-holders at 66, an increasing number are seeking greener pastures. According to an analysis of Forest Service data by WildEarth Guardians, more than 1.5 million leased acres in the Gila region – about 45 percent of all permitted acres – changed ownership between 2005 and 2012. About 27 percent of the permittees now live outside of New Mexico. Recent permit buyers include a lawyer from Texas, a North Carolina eye doctor and a California businessman.