Already stained by the blood of dead wolves and suffering from a variety of other setbacks, the program to reintroduce endangered Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest is now at the center of two criminal investigations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is formally looking into the disappearance of two wolves in New Mexico and a rancher’s claim that he intentionally baited wolves in order to get them killed.

“We had requests that we do a criminal investigation, and we are,” says agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown. In an interview last year, New Mexico ranch hand Mike Miller told High Country News that he deliberately baited a wolf with cattle in order to trigger the federal “three strikes” rule, which mandates the shooting or capturing of any wolf that kills three cows in one year’s time.

Slown says Miller’s statements — which appeared in the Dec. 24, 2007, edition of the publication -- took agency employees by surprise. A coalition of environmental groups immediately demanded an investigation.

“I don’t think we had ever considered before the possibility that somebody might actually lure the wolf to the point the wolves actually commit strikes,” Slown says. “We had not considered that people would do something underhanded in order to bring about a wolf being removed. Maybe that was just incredibly naïve on our part.”

Miller works for the 275,000-acre Adobe-Slash Ranch, which is owned by Mexican businessman Eloy Vallina. Miller, who has an unlisted number, could not be reached for comment, and Gene Whetten, his supervisor, declined to answer questions when contacted by HCN on Feb. 26.

“Mr. Miller works for me and he’s forbidden to talk to you,” Whetten says. He alleges that the paper “fabricated” most of its story, and that the ranch is considering legal action against HCN.

The criminal investigations face significant challenges, according to a Fish and Wildlife source. In interviews with law enforcement officials, Miller reportedly denied making the statements attributed to him by HCN. Furthermore, according to the Interior Department, the fact that Miller branded cattle on private land within half a mile of a known wolf den does not in itself violate federal wolf reintroduction rules, which give ranchers wide leeway in how they operate even when wolves are nearby.

“The corral is located on private land and use of it for working cattle in this manner is consistent with annual ranch operations,” Interior Deputy Director Kenneth Stansell said in a Feb. 22 letter to environmentalists.

The HCN article and the subsequent investigations have led the group Defenders of Wildlife to suspend compensation payments to the Adobe-Slash Ranch for cattle killed by wolves, says Craig Miller, the Defenders’ Southwest representative. The group is withholding $7,400 in compensation for nine cattle that were killed last fall. Those killings resulted in the Fish and Wildlife Service removing the most genetically valuable Mexican gray wolf pack from the recovery area. This was done after agency officials learned of Mike Miller’s wolf-baiting statements.

“This has certainly caused us to take a closer look at whether our compensation program is achieving the level of tolerance (for wolves) that was originally intended,” Craig Miller says. “In this case, the compensation program may be serving as a perverse incentive.”

The Defenders of Wildlife had already paid the Adobe-Slash ranch $2,400 for a cow and calf that were killed by wolves last June. Miller later told HCN that he deliberately left the cow and newborn calf where he did after he had detected wolves nearby using a radio receiver provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service. That night, a wolf killed the cows, thereby racking up its third strike. Federal hunters shot it on July 5, over the objections of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. Fish and Wildlife criminal investigators are also looking into the disappearance of two radio-collared wolves that were last located in November 2007 on the Adobe-Slash, in the northeast corner of the Gila National Forest.

Slown says it’s very unusual for two collared wolves to vanish without any signal from the radio transmitters. The transmitters send out an alert if a wolf stops moving, allowing field personnel to locate injured or dead animals. In this instance, the radio receivers on both wolves appear to have failed, fueling speculation that someone shot the wolves and destroyed their radio collars. The agency’s investigation faces an uphill challenge because the wolves’ bodies have never been found. The investigations coincide with the agency’s announcement that the number of Mexican gray wolves in the recovery area has declined from 59 a year ago to 52 today. That’s about half the number biologists had expected to be in the wild by now.

December’s survey also found only four breeding pairs of wolves, far below the expected 18 pairs. The Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the removal of 22 wolves last year, mostly for preying on livestock or straying from the 7,000-square-mile recovery area, which straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border. No new wolves were released into the area in 2007.

Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity says the agency needs to change its reintroduction rules to give wolves the same protection afforded to other animals under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, the wolves are considered an “experimental, nonessential population,” a designation that allows the government to kill or trap and remove any that kill livestock.

Slown says the agency is reviewing its wolf reintroduction rules and preparing a new environmental impact statement that may provide more protection. Still, it will be at least a year before the proposed rules are released for public comment.

In addition to the wolves removed from the field by the Fish and Wildlife Service, at least 35 others have been taken illegally in the wild since the program began in March 1998. Most were killed by shooting, although a few were struck by vehicles whose drivers failed to report the incident as required by law.

In a Jan. 3 letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, a coalition of environmental groups said that the high rate of wolf poaching and suspicious disappearances “strongly suggests” that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to “conciliate” the livestock industry are actually causing an increase in the number of wolf deaths.

The groups asked Kempthorne to order an independent investigation of “the possible role of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in facilitating illegal take” of the wolves. Interior Deputy Director Stansell responded that the request “has been taken under advisement.”

The coalition also asked Kempthorne to direct the agency to confiscate the radio receivers it had given to ranchers and county governments. This would limit the ability of locals opposed to wolf reintroduction to monitor the whereabouts of wolves. Slown says the agency has no plans at this time to do so.

The author is a contributing editor for High Country News.