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Know the West

Wolf killers sought in Southwest

 

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.