Wolves go wild in the Southwest

  • Apache and Gila national forests

    Diane Sylvain
  • WAITING FOR FREEDOM: Mexican wolf

    Jim Clark photo, USFWS
  • Captive wolf management facility in Sevilleta Nat'l Wildlife Refuge in N.M.

  • Bruce Babbitt & Jamie Rappaport Clark help carry Mexican wolves

    Hans Stuart, USFWS

In the fall of 1917, Stanley P. Young rode into the Canello Hills in southern Arizona, saddlebags packed with the tools of his trade: steel-jawed traps, metal stakes and chains, leather gloves and a bottle of odiferous wolf lure. The hired gun for the Bureau of Biological Survey was following a pair of wolves whose tracks wandered back and forth across the Mexican border.

Young, who later became national chief of predator control for the agency, wouldn't succeed without a struggle. The wolf that stepped into his leghold trap in subsequent days pulled the trap loose from the ground and fled through a brushy ravine, fighting off Young's dogs. She would have escaped had Young not caught up to her on horseback, killing her with a shot from his Colt revolver.

According to Young, she was the first Mexican wolf in Arizona killed by federal trappers in a campaign that, by the 1930s, had eliminated breeding populations of the wolf from the Southwest. Wolves continued to cross the border from Mexico into the 1970s, but by 1980 they were thought to have disappeared from the wild.

Aldo Leopold, in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, wrote of shooting a wolf in Arizona's Blue Range. Many years later, he came to respect the "fierce green fire" in the eyes of the dying animal and to understand the critical role predators play in the wild.

It has taken half a century, but Leopold's philosophy has led the federal government to turn from extermination to restoration. Last month, the Southwest again resonated with the ululations of the Mexican wolf.

While the wolves' return has the support of many in the region, questions remain. Some wolf advocates say the reintroduction area is too small to allow the animals to thrive. Meanwhile, in rural areas, fear of the wolf still lingers, and some question whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knows what sort of animal it is dealing with.

It almost never happened

Both sides will soon get some answers to their questions. On January 26, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark helped carry a wolf kennel to a holding pen in Arizona's Blue Range near the New Mexico border. The kennel was one of three, containing a pair of Mexican wolves and their pup.

"I grew up in this country, and always had the sense that something was missing," Babbitt told reporters. "We've got to make this work. This is just the beginning of the beginning." Later the same week, biologists delivered a second wolf family into holding pens nearby, to be followed by a third in coming weeks.

The wolves will acclimate for six to eight weeks before being released into a 7,000 square-mile "recovery zone" straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border on the Apache and Gila national forests. The area is a world of rocky red bluffs, precipitous canyons, juniper-scented mesas and upland forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir - sort of like southern Utah with clothes on. The Fish and Wildlife Service hopes the wolves will increase to 100, at which point they can be taken off the endangered species list.

If the Mexican wolves do survive in the wild, it will be a near miracle. At one point, the U.S. population was down to a few scattered animals in zoos. Then the species got a powerful ally: the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

With this law on the books, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned to a veteran Mexican wolf trapper named Roy McBride, with the hope that he could find enough animals still in the wild to start a captive breeding program. McBride, who had started trapping wolves for Mexican ranchers in the late 1950s, was to capture wolves in Mexico and bring them back alive to the United States. From 1978 to 1980, McBride said, "When ranchers would call me with a wolf complaint I'd go ahead and catch it."

These last wolves, wary of traps and poison, were few and far between. He was able to capture only seven, with four surviving to enter the captive breeding program.

Fish and Wildlife mixed zoo wolves with wild ones to deepen the species' shallow gene pool. The program succeeded in producing pups, but in 1987, the agency suspended breeding because of opposition from state officials. Biologists separated males and females, and it looked as if the species was to go extinct behind bars.

Then, in 1990, a lawsuit from the ad hoc Wolf Action Group forced federal officials to reunite the genders. And over the years, with prodding and threats of more litigation, the Fish and Wildlife Service once again began moving toward reintroduction.

Bobbie Holaday, 75, is one of the environmentalists who pushed for the wolf's return. After retiring from a corporate career, Holaday founded the all-volunteer group Preserve Arizona Wolves (PAWS) in 1988 to educate the public. "There was no organized support for Mexican wolves in Arizona," she says. "It seemed totally overwhelming."

Misgivings remain

With the wolf's return looming, activists are excited but also apprehensive. "Fish and Wildlife always wants the ability to over-manage a population, especially in the first years," says long-time New Mexico wolf supporter Martin Heinrich, who would prefer greater freedom for the animals.

Heinrich argues that the boundaries of the 7,000 square-mile recovery zone have more to do with politics than ecology. If the species is to survive, he says, "We're going to have to allow wolves to disperse outside of the recovery zone south into the Peloncillos and into the mountains of northern Mexico."

But according to David Parsons, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican wolf recovery leader, the boundaries will be strictly enforced. Each wolf will wear a radio collar so that it can be tracked by plane or truck, and animals that stray outside the recovery zone will be captured and returned, or held in captivity.

"There is significant concern that if wolves were returned, they'd occupy all suitable habitat in the Southwest," says Parsons, "so we made a decision to put some limits on the recovery."

Advocates also worry that ranching interests will dominate wolf management. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has the final say over the wolves' fate, it is delegating much of the on-the-ground responsibility to Arizona and New Mexico. Assisting in day-to-day management will be a committee that includes county, state and tribal officials - groups that opposed reintroduction or preferred that it take place away from their bailiwick - as well as the Forest Service and Wildlife Services (Animal Damage Control's latest handle).

Bill Van Pelt of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish expects U.S. Fish and Wildlife to heed local interests. If the federal agency doesn't, he says, "politically they'd be slaughtered."

Another concern is the wolves' "experimental nonessential" status, which allows ranchers to shoot wolves that kill livestock on private land. Once there are at least six breeding pairs in the region, ranchers will also be able to acquire permits to kill wolves that prey on livestock on public-land grazing allotments.

The same experimental nonessential designation caused a federal judge to rule the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone and Idaho illegal last December because of the mixing of reintroduced wolves with naturally occuring wolves (HCN, 12/22/97). That should not be an issue in the Southwest, where there have been no confirmed wolf sightings in over 20 years.

While many activists prefer more stringent Endangered Species Act protection, others, like Holaday of PAWS, see the experimental nonessential designation as a reasonable compromise. "There's no way in the world that we would be able to reintroduce wolves without experimental nonessential classification," she says. "We have such fierce opposition."

Crying wolf?

Hugh B. McKeen is the face of that opposition. McKeen was a Catron County, N.M., commissioner during that county's attempt to assert its supremacy over federal land management. He runs cows on the Gila National Forest near the wolf release site.

McKeen says fire suppression and abundant predators have driven down deer populations on the national forests. Deer living on private ranches will draw the wolves into close quarters with livestock and people, he says. Although biologists insist there is no record of a wild, non-rabid wolf attacking a human in North America, McKeen is convinced that people have been killed by wolves. He predicts a child will be killed by Mexican wolves within a few years.

"Environmentalists say, "We want to hear them howl. They have a right to be here." But are those good enough reasons to disrupt people's lives?" he asks. "Why don't I go to Albuquerque and tell people, "I go to town for the experience. I want to see those homeless people on the streets; I want to hear the sirens, so keep the thugs on the street corners." "

Also skeptical is the man who helped make reintroduction possible: trapper Roy McBride. Today, thanks in part to McBride's skill, there are 176 Mexican wolves in captivity. But McBride insists they aren't what Fish and Wildlife says they are. Many of the zoo wolves in the captive breeding program were wolf-dog hybrids, he says, and as a result, the agency is about to introduce hybrid animals into the wild.

While the agency's David Parsons acknowledges there were questions about whether some of the captive wolves were dog hybrids, he says the questions have been answered. "We asked a panel of nationally recognized genetic experts to look at these animals (the supposed hybrids) and they matched those (wild animals) Roy caught in Mexico," says Parsons.

A monument to Leopold

When the pens are opened this spring, 11 Mexican gray wolves will venture into a world much different from the one their ancestors lived in. Over the years, grazing and fire suppression have changed the look of the two national forests.

The most important change, however, is that the single greatest reason for their extirpation - a federal program dedicated to their demise - will no longer be aimed against them.

But these wolves will have to be selective. They will have to learn quickly to pull down elk, deer and javelina, but not cows, and to stay within the bounds of their legal recovery zone.

If all goes well, and some of those wolves lope from their holding pens in Arizona into the eastern part of their new home in New Mexico, they will have to cross a double lane black-top before reaching the Gila Wilderness. Next to the highway stands a monument to Aldo Leopold.

Michael Robinson writes from Pinos Altos, New Mexico. He works for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and is writing a book about the wolf extermination campaign in Colorado.

You can contact...

* Bobbie Holaday with PAWS ... (PAWS has disbanded and its contact information is no longer valid. -Eds. November 29, 2004)

* David Parsons with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 505/248-6920;

* Rancher Hugh McKeen at 505/539-2733.

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