Neighbors get nasty in New Mexico

Is Deirdre Wolf a martyr or a menace?

  • THE RANCHER: Alex Thal

    Michael Berman
 

SILVER CITY, N.M. - Last January, prominent local environmental activist and Mexican wolf advocate Deirdre "Dee Dee" Wolf fired a .38 in the name of protecting her property rights from an equally prominent local rancher.

Exactly how it happened remains in dispute, but her intent was clear: She aimed to chase the rancher off a dirt road that slices through her property. He claimed the road was public and she claimed it was private. The dispute could land Wolf in prison: the petite 61-year-old faces two counts of aggravated assault with use of a firearm, a fourth-degree felony carrying a maximum five-year sentence.

Southwestern New Mexico is the home of Catron County, where ugly battles between ranchers and environmentalists attracted national attention in the 1990s (HCN, 6/24/96: Catron County's politics heat up as its land goes bankrupt). Grant County, where Silver City is located, borders Catron to the south. In this neighborhood, a case like Wolf's is loaded with political meaning, and public opinion is split. There are those who believe local authorities are persecuting Wolf for taking on the cowboy culture, and those who see her as simply another troublemaker.

Standoff in Silver City

Wolf, like thousands of urban refugees across the West, says she moved into a 160-acre rural subdivision nine miles east of Silver City in 1997 for peace and quiet. The 7,000-foot-elevation subdivision seems cut off from civilization. Its main road runs through a streambed. Junipers and ponderosa pine trees envelop perhaps 10 homes.

A former private-land rancher and retired social worker, Wolf chops her own wood, grows her own vegetables and lives on a limited retirement income. She also volunteers for a nonprofit agency as a special advocate for abused and neglected kids.

Wolf, who changed her last name from Mueller in the mid-1990s, attracted attention here two years ago with her support of the federal wolf reintroduction program. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released Mexican wolves on the Arizona-New Mexico border (HCN, 1/29/01: A slow comeback for Mexican wolves), Wolf unleashed pro-wolf signs, letters, parade floats, T-shirts, posters and bumper stickers.

Her affection for the animals is more than theoretical. She owns nine wolf-dog hybrids, and she calls her property "Wolfsong Sanctuary." In recent months, she has clashed repeatedly with her neighbors over the animals' howling and aggressive behavior.

The tension between Wolf and her community boiled over one afternoon in January. As she walked the road through her property, she encountered a one-ton flatbed truck driven by Alex Thal. The rancher and Western New Mexico University economist has long been allied with ranching, logging and other local industries.

Thal says he and a cowboy helper were trying to respond to a complaint from Wolf. Three weeks earlier, Wolf had written Gila National Forest officials, complaining that Thal's livestock had repeatedly trespassed onto neighboring allotments. Thal believed he had an easement allowing him to drive through Wolf's property, into another rancher's adjoining grazing allotment, and then into his allotment. They entered Wolf's property by lifting her locked gate off its hinges, since a key they'd borrowed from another rancher didn't work.

When Wolf spotted his truck, she ran into the house, called 911 and returned with a .38. She said she was worried that Thal's large bulls would go through her north gate and gobble up hundreds of dollars worth of native grasses that she had planted.

She fired a shot that Thal later said whizzed two feet over the men's heads. Wolf says she fired into the dirt. "I never shot at them," she says. "I never meant to hurt them." Thal cradled a rifle in his arms, and told Wolf to drop the pistol. Wolf told them, "You stop trying to break my gate because if you do, you're going to be driving a three-wheeled truck."

"She's a fighter"

On May 11, Grant County Magistrate Ron Hall ordered Wolf to stand trial, saying that she had "done the right thing" by phoning 911 to report a trespass and should have stayed inside.

Grant County Attorney Sherry Tippett, a registered Green Party member and wolf reintroduction advocate, has authored a legal opinion arguing that the road through Wolf's property is public.

She invokes the Revised Statute 2477 of the Mining Act of 1866. R.S. 2477 granted states and local governments rights to use federal lands on roads known to exist after the law was passed and before Congress created the national forest system in 1905. Those wishing to use the road also must prove that it received a certain amount of historic use.

Congress repealed the R.S. 2477 law a quarter-century ago. But thanks to several favorable court rulings, R.S. 2477 roads can still, under some circumstances, be established in New Mexico by public use, Tippett wrote.

Based on Tippett's opinion, the county commission ordered Wolf to reopen the road through her property. Wolf has filed suit to overturn the commission's decision, but has unlatched her gates until the suit is settled.

Wolf says she regrets the shooting, but feels that she's been unfairly targeted by the county. "When I fired the gun, I thought I was being a good guy, I was defending my life and my property," she says. "They will do anything in Grant County to get rid of environmental activists who are effective."

Michael Sauber, a longtime Silver City environmentalist, agrees that Wolf has been victimized; he says that, as a former rancher, she has been able to defuse a lot of ranchers' arguments that the Mexican wolf will hurt them economically.

Even a local newspaper columnist usually sympathetic to traditional rural residents agreed that Wolf's activism was the cause of her legal troubles. "She's a fighter and she chose to throw the wolf issue punch first, right in the face of rural Grant County," wrote Larry Lightner in the Las Cruces Sun-News, "and the people have punched back with the road issue."

Nonsense, counters county attorney Tippett. The county is preparing a map of all its R.S. 2477 roads, and Tippett stands behind her case: "I don't care if it's a rancher or a Martian. If it's an R.S. 2477 road, it will be open."

Tony Davis reports for the Arizona Daily Star.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Tony Davis

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