Wolf killers sought in Southwest

  • Mexican wolf shortly after release

    George Andrejko photo, Ariz. Fish & Game Dept.
  • A wolf shot last April

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
 

ALPINE, Ariz. - Four Mexican gray wolves splashed with fluorescent paint and wearing brightly colored radio collars scurried into the wild here in mid-December. Their controversial release is the latest act in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's bullet-riddled effort to bring the wolf back to the Southwest.

Earlier this year, biologists had released 11 wolves on the Arizona-New Mexico border. At first, the captive-reared wolves exceeded biologists' fondest hopes. They stayed away from cattle, gained weight, and reproduced within weeks of their release.

But five wolves have been shot and killed, while another has disappeared after losing her radio collar. Biologists have recaptured three wolves: two because they wandered out of the recovery area, and one because her health deteriorated after her mate was shot.

A dozen federal investigators are now working full time on the shootings, sorting through more than 100 leads and examining physical evidence including bullets of at least four different calibers. Rewards have reached a total of $45,000 for the conviction of the first wolf killer, and reward offers could yield an additional $30,000 for each additional incident, says Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Hans Stuart (HCN, 12/7/98).

Although they haven't yet found a culprit, the agency decided to move forward with the recent release. Officials hope the paint splotches will help to protect the new wolves from over-eager hunters.

"We're marking these wolves so that they won't be mistaken for coyotes or any other wildlife in the forest," said Nancy Kaufman, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwestern Region.

But others worry that the wolves will be more vulnerable to disgruntled ranchers and other locals. "It's outrageous that they're painting bull's-eyes on wolves already targeted by assassins," says Southwest Center for Biological Diversity Director Kieran Suckling. "If they really think this is being done by coyote hunters, then banning coyote hunting in the area would be a much simpler and comprehensive strategy. But they're loath to use regulations on humans to protect the wolves."

A list of suspects

Although the investigators remain tight-lipped, nearly everyone else seems to have a theory about the shootings. Some blame hunters who travel the logging roads crisscrossing the reintroduction area, while others point to ranchers who oppose the reintroduction effort.

Diane Boyd-Heger is an Arizona Game and Fish biologist on the wolf recovery team who has worked closely with ranchers in Alpine throughout the wolf recovery effort. She says she can't believe ranchers or other locals have intentionally killed any wolves. She notes that even outspoken opponents of the reintroduction have been helpful and cooperative.

More likely culprits, she says, are hunters with itchy trigger fingers. "The habitat here is very open," she says. "You can see 400 or 500 yards and take an (all-terrain vehicle) and drive it anywhere. There's no refuge for the wolves ... (they're) living on a national forest where every square inch has multiple use."

The captive-reared wolves are also too trusting of humans, she says, making them even more vulnerable to hunters. "We've done our best to minimize contact with humans, but when someone's approaching they'll often stand and watch. It's a sad combination of factors."

Others put ranchers at the top of their suspect list. Ranchers led the effort to block reintroduction and are now suing to block its continuation. During heated public hearings before the introduction, a number of ranchers made veiled threats against the wolves. Many ranchers have openly applauded the shootings and urged the federal government to abandon the reintroduction.

"I don't buy the hunting thing," says Suckling. "Ranchers have tried to exterminate the wolves for 100 years. They're still trying to stop the reintroduction program." He says it wouldn't be hard to locate the wolves. News of the wolves' whereabouts spreads so quickly, he says, that he can generally pinpoint the whereabouts of each wolf within five or 10 miles on any given day - even from his office in Tucson.

In the struggling cluster of towns that border the wolf reintroduction area, public opinion on the shootings is divided. The area has long been sustained by the ranching and timber industries, but lawsuits on behalf of the Mexican spotted owl and other species have made wood pulp out of the timber industry in the region during the past five years. The mill at nearby Eagar, which used to employ about 300 workers, is down to 80 and beset by rumors of closure. The Forest Service has also responded to a host of actual and threatened lawsuits on behalf of riparian species with tough new restrictions on grazing.

Some locals see the wolf as a symbol of federal meddling in the local economy, says Jerry Stewart, director of the Round Valley Chamber of Commerce, while others see the reintroduction effort as the linchpin of a growing tourism industry in the area.

"There's a lot of tension" over the shootings, he says. "The whole community is wondering who is doing it, why it's being done. Right now, it's pretty much equal up here between people who don't like it and people who say 'good riddance to the damn wolves.' "

Peter Aleshire, a former reporter for the Arizona Republic, lives in Phoenix.

You can contact ...

* Hans Stuart, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 505/248-6909;

* Rory Akins, Arizona Game and Fish Department, 602/942-3000.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ASSOCIATE
    Job Announcement: Environmental Justice Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    Job Announcement: Communications Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13, 2021...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....