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Paul Morey had been waiting, hoping, to see something like this.
"As we're driving down a dirt road, we saw this elk calf bedded down," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife technician says. "It suddenly jumped up when it saw two wolves coming."
The calf got up and ran across a field, baying in distress as it tried to leap over a barbed-wire fence, but instead fell to the ground.
"The wolves were on it in five seconds," Morey says.
Seconds later a cow elk appeared.
"The mother came running and made a beeline for the wolves," he says. "She jumped over the barbed-wire fence and landed on the female wolf. At about the same time, the male wolf ran off."
The female wolf continued to attack the calf. The cow, in turn, pressed her attack on the wolf, kicking it repeatedly with its sharp hooves.
"We thought the cow was going to kill the wolf," Morey says.
Morey realized he couldn't have stopped the melee even if he'd wanted to.
"We knew we had to let nature take its course. Eventually, the female wolf did break off the attack."
As if by script, the cow elk licked the nose of its calf, which didn't appear hurt.
In an instant, the wolf was transformed by nature from predator to prey. She limped off into the forest and disappeared.
The female wolf was one of 11 Mexican gray wolves released into the Apache National Forest last March in a bold, and some say misguided, effort to reintroduce the nearly extinct wolf into its native range high in the ponderosa forests of eastern Arizona.
Known simply as No. 174, she proved to be one of the most resilient animals in the forest. Biologists who monitor the wolves believe she suffered broken ribs and a damaged leg from the elk's counterattack.
It was crucial that she survive--she was caring for one of the first Mexican gray wolf pups born in the Arizona wilds in decades. All the wolves wear radio-transmission collars, so biologists were able to track No. 174's whereabouts and supplement her diet with road-killed elk carcasses for several weeks.
By midsummer, she, her mate and pup appeared to be thriving. They killed an adult elk on August 2.
The trio, along with the other wolves, were showing every sign that they could survive in the wild--which was a worrisome question when they were released last March 29.
Biologists sometimes refer to the fifth-generation captive wolves as "knuckleheads" because of their dangerous affinity for humans and relatively cushy upbringing. The wolves had all been raised in zoos and fed by humans. No one knew whether they could quickly fend for themselves and learn to hunt together and kill wild prey.
Significantly, the answer appears to be that they can.
But on or about August 7, No. 174's life came to an abrupt end. At first, managers of the wolf reintroduction program said she had been killed by a mountain lion. But that story changed several months later when it was announced the wolf had been shot.
"She had a rough life," says biologist Diane Boyd-Heger, considered one of the world's foremost authorities on wolf reintroductions. "She was a very tough wolf, but not tough enough to dodge bullets."
The bullets are flying these days on the Apache National Forest, the release area for the world's rarest subspecies of wolf. Five of the 11 wolves released there have been shot and killed. Another wolf lost its radio collar, disappeared, and is presumed dead. No. 174's pup went missing after its mother was shot, and is presumed dead.
Nowhere has wolf reintroduction resulted in such a shooting frenzy. Isolated shootings have occurred in Idaho and Yellowstone, but nothing compared to the carnage in Arizona.
"We have an explosion of vigilantism in the Southwest," says Seattle-based researcher Tom Beno, who tracks illegal wolf killings across the country.
Many of the human inhabitants of the rugged mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border do not hesitate to challenge authority, especially the federal government's. Two counties in New Mexico--Catron and Sierra--have passed ordinances asserting equal control with the federal government in managing federal lands. The populace is well-armed; in Catron County, by law, every household is supposed to have a gun.
Distrust of the government runs deep. Diatribes about the wolf are frequently interspersed with talk of militias, black helicopters and the impending world economic collapse.
The gunplay has spread from the forest to Santa Fe, where the office of an animal-rights group was sprayed with gunfire on the night of December 6. The organization has received anonymous letters promising "to kill any wolf reintroduced" as long as the animal-rights advocates "interfere with wildlife issues."
A $50,000 reward is being offered for help in catching the Mexican gray wolf killers. More than a dozen federal and state wildlife agents are sifting through at least 100 leads that have developed since the reward was posted.
Environmentalists are quick to point the finger at local residents who have long opposed wolf reintroduction. Criminal investigators, however, insist they have not identified any groups or individuals as suspects.
Who's to blame for the slaughter of endangered species?
Unknown shooters, to be sure.
But federal and state governments deserve their share of the blame as well. If biology--and not politics--had been the guiding force behind the program to return 100 Mexican gray wolves to their historic range, the wolves never would have encountered so many humans.