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for people who care about the West

Red meat can be green

  The "dolphin-friendly" label gave tuna an environmental face-lift in the 1980s; now, a "Wolf Country Beef" label may do the same for hamburger. The label is the brainchild of Jim Winder and Will Holder, ranchers who have teamed up with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. They're developing the seal-of-approval so that beef coming from ranchers who avoid killing predators will stand out in stores. The beef label will appear in March.

Winder's ranch sits on the edge of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, and while wolves have not yet been restored to the area, he regularly sees coyotes and mountain lions. Winder says his grazing methods require lots of herding time but they pay off: Coyotes have taken only two calves since he began what he calls "predator-friendly ranching" 10 years ago.

Across the state line on the edge of Arizona's Apache National Forest, fourth-generation rancher Will Holder hasn't had quite the same success. Holder says he loses on average four-to-six cattle per year and once lost eight in a week to a young mountain lion. But Holder accepts predator loss as natural.

Both ranchers say the trick is imitating the predator role so that cattle stick together. Any animal separated from a herd is more likely to become a lion's or coyote's next meal, they say. Their methods include training cows to group around hay and conditioning them to bunch up at the sound of a whistle.

Wolves could play a significant role in the ecosystem by helping to prevent overgrazing, the two ranchers say. When cattle are threatened by predators, they keep moving, and the presence of lions and coyotes has improved grass re-introduction on their range, they point out.

In late January, the U.S. and Wildlife Service re-introduced a family of Mexican gray wolves to the Apache National Forest, which borders the Gila National Forest. Craig Miller, Southwest representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, hopes the program will "counter the myth that the recovery program would force ranchers off the land."

Wolves can be an economic asset to the region, says Holder, who hopes the Wolf Country Beef program demonstrates that ranchers can live with wolves and still make money. Winder adds that ranchers "are not going to blast a wolf if they see them as an economic incentive." They hope meat shoppers will vote with their dollars for this kind of public-land management.

For more information, contact Jim Winder at Lake Valley Ranch, HC 66, Box 38, Deming, NM (505/267-4227); Will Holder at 800/977-0065; or Defenders of Wildlife Southwest office at 520/578-9334.

* Sara Phillips