By Matthew Hendley
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By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
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By the mid-1930s, most of the wolves were gone. But not until 1970 was it confirmed that Mexican gray wolves, which once ranged across Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas, no longer existed in the United States. Only a handful survived in the mountains of central Mexico.
Just a few years after the wolf was wiped out, a new federal law--the Endangered Species Act--had the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing a flip-flop. The agency went from exterminating the Mexican gray wolf to attempting to save the species from extinction, and, if possible, put it back into the wild.
Mandated by the Endangered Species Act "to preserve and protect endangered species," FWS placed the Mexican gray wolf on the endangered species list in 1976. The agency hired one of the Southwest's top wolf hunters, Roy McBride of Alpine, Texas, to travel to Mexico to capture wild gray wolves.
Between 1977 and 1980, McBride captured five wolves, three of which became the basis for a captive breeding program that was certified as genetically pure. The McBride line of wolves was later joined with two other certified lines. The three lines have generated nearly 200 Mexican gray wolves that have been bred at 40 zoos and wolf refuges--including the Phoenix Zoo--in the United States and Mexico.
From this stock, 11 Mexican gray wolves were selected, moved into Apache National Forest in January and placed into three acclimation pens that each cover about one-third of an acre. They remained there until they were freed on March 29.
Wildlife biologists say that, as a "keystone species," the Mexican gray wolves will have a significant and positive impact on the diversity and health of the ecosystem. No other predator in the western United States can achieve the wolves' ecological role--to kill primarily deer, elk, pronghorn and, occasionally, bighorn sheep.
Wolves are expected to focus on elk, whose numbers have steadily increased. (Ironically, many of the ranchers who claim that wolves will eat their cattle have asked state officials to do something to thin the elk herd, which they say is taking forage from their cattle and creating hazards for motorists.) Predators instinctively hunt the weakest, sickest members of the herd. Thinning by wolves will create a stronger, healthier elk herd. Wolves will also push elk and deer away from rivers and streams, giving riparian areas a chance to recover from decades of overgrazing.
Wolves also are expected to kill other livestock predators, including mountain lions and coyotes. Depredation of coyotes, in particular, would have wider benefits, biologists say. Based on what has happened in other wolf reintroduction areas, biologists expect fewer coyotes will mean a proliferation of small rodents, which will in turn serve as a prey base for hawks and eagles.
The presence of wolves is expected to boost tourism in one of the most remote and beautiful areas of the country. Wolf populations have generated substantial increases in tourism near Yellowstone and in northern Minnesota.
"The average person coming through here is delighted that this is wolf country. They are delighted for the reintroduction. They think it is viable and worthwhile," says Don Musson, manager of the Hannagan Meadow Lodge, a beautiful and historic log inn 30 miles south of Alpine.
Besides the tangible benefits, wolf proponents argue that reintroduction is necessary because it returns a sense of wholeness, a true sense of the wild, to the landscape.
"What is the wilderness, what is its value, if it is missing the very top predator?" asks Bobbie Holaday of Preserve Arizona Wolves.
The visceral hatred that led to eradication of the wolf still permeates the social structure in towns like Springerville and Alpine in Arizona, and Luna and Reserve in New Mexico.
"Everybody over here, 99 percent of them, is opposed to the wolf," says Jesse Carey, a former Catron County, New Mexico, sheriff and owner of a gun shop in Reserve.
Carey's gun shop was searched last month by federal wildlife agents investigating the wolf shootings. Carey says the investigators seized rifles and ammunition and obtained a list of names of about a dozen people who had purchased certain weapons.
Carey believes the wolves pose a threat to the community.
"We are afraid that some of these wolves are going to get a hold of one of our children and kill them," he says.
Such fear of the wolf, which reintroduction supporters call baseless, is just one ingredient in the stew of resentment simmering in the economically depressed counties that straddle the Arizona-New Mexico line.
Federal land managers, spurred by environmentalists' lawsuits, have slashed timber and ranching operations to protect such endangered species as the Mexican spotted owl, Southwest willow flycatcher and Gila loach minnow. When a company in Phoenix lays off 50 people, no one seems to care. But when the saw mill in Reserve shut down, it plunged the community into a depression.
"Not only have they regulated us out of business, but they come along and put the wolf right on top of us," says Dink Robart, an Alpine blacksmith, rancher and vocal opponent of wolf reintroduction. "They are rubbing are noses in it."
Grassroots opposition and anger translate into political power. Every county in Arizona and New Mexico that contains portions of the wolf recovery area (the zone includes all of the Apache and Gila national forests) passed resolutions opposing reintroduction. Former Arizona governor J. Fife Symington III was opposed to reintroduction; Governor Jane Hull has been silent on the matter, even in the wake of the shootings. New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson is adamantly opposed.