Wildlife Disservice

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

In February 1995, Cooper was convicted in New Mexico of aggravated assault and illegal possession of a firearm after "allegedly shooting at someone's feet to make them 'dance,'" law enforcement records state.

Arizona Game and Fish launched an undercover investigation into reports of an illegal mountain lion hunting operation near Safford in March 1996. During the investigation, Cooper, who didn't have a hunting-guide license, led an undercover agent on a lion hunt and accepted payment.

Cooper told the agent that he had illegally killed an elk that winter and affixed his wife's hunting tag to it. Throughout three days of hunting, Cooper carried a firearm even though he was forbidden to possess one because of felony convictions. At one point, Cooper fired several shots at deer, even though it was not deer season, state records of the undercover operation show.

State Game and Fish agents arrested Cooper on March 19, 1996, and charged him with illegal possession of a firearm. He was later indicted on federal firearm charges. Cooper pleaded guilty to the federal charges in June 1996 and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.

As part of the plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Cooper for illegally purchasing six rifles from two Graham County gun shops. One of the rifles, a Mauser, is believed to be the same type used in one of the wolf shootings, criminal investigators say. There is no indication of what became of Cooper's Mauser.

While in prison, Cooper pleaded guilty to state charges of guiding without a license, and was sentenced to three months in jail that ran concurrently with his federal prison term. The Game and Fish Department revoked his hunting license for five years and levied a $1,190 fine last March.

Anti-wolf leaders Ness and Carey say they don't know Cooper and have no idea who is killing the wolves. They are certain, however, that the wolf killer or killers is not someone from their area.

"These wolves were killed by somebody mistaking them as a coyote," Carey says. "Everybody knows that coyotes deplete fawn population. You see a coyote and shoot it."

Carey says anyone who accidentally shot a wolf is probably afraid to step forward.

"If they weren't going to be crucified worse than killing a human being, they would turn themselves in," he says.

The farm bureau's Ness offers a more sinister theory behind the wolf killings.

"The people who are killing them are the feds in conjunction with their buddies in the environmental movement who are throwing those animals out there," he says. "Their actions have led to this debacle. It's an absolute failure, just as we said it would be."

At least one influential politician thinks more federal involvement is needed.

Late last month, Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca asked FBI Director Louis Freeh to begin a federal investigation after a Mexican gray wolf was found shot to death on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation.

Baca, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and former New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands, stated that "a new militant form of terrorism" is trying to destroy the wolf reintroduction program that is widely supported by the public.

"As a nation, we simply should not tolerate further sabotage," Baca said.

After enthusiastically embracing its role to eliminate the wolf for decades, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been slow to fully embrace its legal duty to return the wolf to the wild.

The service took initial steps toward reintroduction in 1976 when it placed the Mexican gray wolf on the endangered species list. The agency adopted the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan in 1982, then largely ignored its recommendations to reintroduce it.

From 1976 to 1989, FWS spent a total of $55,000 on the recovery project. Finally, after years of prodding by private groups, FWS took tangible steps to put the wolf back on the land. And even then, the agency bowed to political pressure and failed to review suitable wolf release areas in New Mexico.

Former FWS regional director Michael Spear set the tone for the agency's approach to wolf reintroduction when he issued an informal policy in the mid-1980s allowing state land managers to veto any federal plan to reintroduce the wolf within their state--even on federal land.

Arizona and Texas did just that, while New Mexico suggested White Sands Missile Range as a possible release site. Notably, White Sands is one of the few areas of public land in New Mexico where there are no cattle. Military officials, however, rejected the proposal in October 1987.

The program was dormant until April 1990, when the Santa Fe-based Wolf Action Group sued. The group alleged, in part, that Spear couldn't legally allow states to veto reintroductions.

The lawsuit was settled in 1993 when FWS agreed to attempt to release wolves into New Mexico and Arizona, including preparing an environmental impact statement by March 1995.

When FWS failed to meet the 1995 deadline, the Wolf Action Group threatened to take the agency back to court. The threat spurred FWS to prepare a draft environmental impact statement that was released in November 1996.

About that time, the Arizona Game and Fish Department voted 3-2 to allow the release of the wolf in Arizona under a set of stringent conditions. Arizona game managers made it clear they preferred the wolves to be released at White Sands, but if that wasn't possible, they could be released in Apache National Forest.

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