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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 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