Wildlife Disservice

Someone is shooting endangered Mexican gray wolves. The government's flawed reintroduction program helped put them in the crosshairs.

As it turned out, nine wolves were released only seven miles from the town of Alpine, on prime hunting land accessible by a latticework of Forest Service roads. All three release sites are surrounded by working cattle ranches. U.S. Route 191 is only two miles away.

There are vast tracts of federal lands, including wilderness areas where vehicles are prohibited, in New Mexico to the east of the wolf-release sites. Wolves freed there would have been more challenging for poachers to locate--although the biologists who must monitor the wolves also would have had a harder time.

But the federal government bent to political pressure from New Mexico, and agreed that no wolves would be released there. This condition seems rather silly--and, in retrospect, foolhardy--in light of the fact that the program, while banning wolf releases in New Mexico, still allows wolves to migrate there on their own (provided they stay inside the 6,865-square-mile recovery area; the Arizona release zone is only about 1,000 square miles).

Nobody is happy.
Not the ranchers and mountain residents of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

Not the environmentalists who sued to force the federal government to enforce its own laws and reintroduce the wolf.

And certainly not the biologists who have struggled to make a flawed program work. Diane Boyd-Heger, the renowned wolf researcher, tendered her resignation last week amid apparent infighting and plans to take a job in Montana that will double her pay.

As winter sets in, instead of focusing on wolf behavior, the wolf reintroduction team is in turmoil and spending valuable time assisting law enforcement agents, who for six months ignored a tip about a $35,000 wolf bounty supposedly offered by ranchers.

With gunfire still echoing through the forest, four wolves, sprayed with orange fluorescent paint in an attempt to keep them from being mistaken for coyotes, which are fair game, were set loose last Friday.

"Right now, things couldn't look any worse," says Bobbie Holaday, director of Preserve Arizona's Wolves, an environmental organization she founded in 1988 that was instrumental in reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf.

Gloomy as the outlook appears, the reintroduction effort still has strong support from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. A former Arizona governor and scion of an Arizona pioneer ranching dynasty, Babbitt says he is determined to keep the wolves on the ground and will do whatever is necessary to find who is killing the rarest of the world's remaining wolves.

"This reintroduction is going forward. The wolf is back. It's here to stay. That's not a threat. It's a statement of national support," Babbitt said last month while helping to move two female wolves into acclimation pens in the release area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent $3 million on the reintroduction program since 1976. The nine-person reintroduction team directed by FWS biologist Dave Parsons projects it will spend $6.7 million more in the next 12 years.

The wolf, in many ways, is a pawn in an increasingly bitter struggle over control of the nation's public lands. Ranchers and loggers have dominated these mountains for 120 years. But their grip on the land is steadily diminishing as the public increasingly embraces a greener philosophy that puts preservation of flora and fauna ahead of extractive economics.

Babbitt believes ranchers and environmentalists can become allies.
"I think we are going to find a day in which we are going to be wise enough, thoughtful enough and neighborly enough to have ranchers who are in the business of taking care of wolves," Babbitt says.

A handful of cattlemen--those brave enough to withstand ridicule and isolation from their peers--are making a nifty profit by accepting predators.

Ironically, the cattlemen's greed--which nearly drove the Mexican gray wolf to extinction--may be a force that brings El Lobo's howl back to the Southwest.

It seems the Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi, is cursed to reliving its brutal past before it can again roam its historic range. The wolf is named after federal biologist Vernon Bailey, who in 1907 prepared a report detailing the best methods for hunting and killing wolves, which Bailey considered "pests."

The Mexican gray wolf is among the smallest of the North American gray wolves. Adults weigh 50 to 90 pounds, average about five feet in length and are about 30 inches tall at the shoulder. Little is known about the wolves' social structure because scant research was done while it was still in the wild.

El Lobo earned a well-deserved reputation for killing livestock soon after ranchers loosed more than a million head on Arizona and New Mexico grasslands in the 1880s. The wolves forsook elk and deer, whose numbers had been diminished by subsistence hunting, and focused on the more numerous, clumsier cattle.

By the turn of the century, ranchers were lobbying Congress to fund the extermination of livestock predators, making the absurd claim that wolves were killing as many as a million cattle a year. Congress responded in 1914, allocating $125,000 to hire 300 hunters to kill every wolf in the Southwest.

Over the next several decades, the Mexican gray wolf was systematically hunted to the brink of extinction by ranchers and federal wildlife agents. The government spent millions of dollars shooting wolves, injecting poisons into wolf baits and digging out dens and clubbing wolf pups.

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