Politics imperil Mexican wolf comeback

  As public hearings on ranching issues go, the Socorro, N.M., session on the endangered Mexican wolf last fall was a rare breed. Hundreds of green-capped environmentalists easily outnumbered ranchers, who more often fill the crowd with a sea of black and white cowboy hats.


Environmentalists came dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs and other fairy tale characters to hammer home their view that the popular image of the bloodthirsty wolf is a myth. The pro-wolf attitude apparently is catching on in the Southwest. Polls, hearings, letters and open houses show the public supports a federal proposal to reintroduce the wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.


But public opinion may not overtake political pressure. Privately, federal officials worry that intense opposition from ranchers, governors, and game and fish departments in the states may scuttle the program, even though federal studies predict the planned release of 100 wolves into the wild would kill only 34 cows annually.


Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's decision on the wolf will come next spring, during a presidential campaign. That will put the feds in a pickle as they juggle science and politics, federal officials admit privately.


"I think the opposition could be a threat," said a federal official familiar with the program. "It's hard to believe that politics won't enter into the decision in the long run."


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials sounded more confident about the wolf reintroduction program when they proposed it last summer. David Parsons, the wolf program's top biologist, predicted at the time that it would take a lawsuit or congressional action to kill the program.


But as soon as the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its Mexican wolf recovery plans, ranchers started rounding up support in high places. Many Catron County, N.M., ranchers threatened to kill wolves that would be released into one of the two proposed sites, the Blue Range Primitive Area in Arizona near the New Mexico border.


The other site is inside the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. No cattle graze there, although cattle do graze within a half-mile of the missile range near the San Andreas Mountains. Critics pointed out that there were only a handful of actual records of wolves living in the missile range, although federal officials said that the surrounding mountains make ideal wolf habitat.


By late October, although 8,000 written comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service ran slightly in favor of the wolf, each state's game and fish department was urging that the wolf be released into the other state first. Federal officials said the opponents were relying heavily on "misinformation" generated by opponents.


Many ranchers said they were simply tired of dealing with predators. "This isn't about wolves," said Al Schneberger, who directs the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "It's about control. It's about giving bureaucrats control over every aspect of anything that people do on the land."


Jim Winder of Deming, N.M., one of the Southwest's few pro-wolf ranchers, said the biggest factor driving the opposition is economics, particularly a 35 percent drop in cattle prices in the past 18 months. Winder, a lifelong rancher who sits on the executive committee of a Sierra Club chapter, runs about 200 cows near White Sands. He says he has killed only two predators in the past decade, and thinks that ranchers could benefit from the wolf, just as Detroit auto companies learned to compete with Japanese car makers.


But right now, he admitted, "Ranchers are scared of change. Their traditional response to hard times is to hunker down and fight it out."


* Tony Davis





Tony Davis works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


For more information contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, P.O. Box 1306, Albuquerque, NM 87103-1306.