By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
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.
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.
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.
In March, three days before the first Mexican grays were released from their acclimation pens, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the release. The lawsuit is pending.
The New Mexico Farm Bureau Federation is perhaps the harshest critic of wolf reintroduction.
"There is no reason to reintroduce them," says bureau spokesman Eric Ness. "There are plenty of gray wolves in Alaska."
Ness says the wolf is a tool in environmentalists' plot to close public access to vast areas of national forests.
"This is no more than a land grab and an attempt to lock up the forest," Ness says.
Ness isn't just crying wolf.
Last month, the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity released its own wolf-recovery plan designed to stave off additional shootings. The plan calls for closing little-used roads in the Apache and Gila national forests along with the phasing out of livestock grazing permits on 3.6 million acres of forest land.
Closing roads would be an important step toward the center's goal of restoring the forests to their former grandeur, where grizzly bears, jaguars, cougars and wolves roam, live and die--free from human interference.
Michael Robinson, the center's wolf specialist, says FWS has catered to cattle industry wishes by embracing rules that would allow ranchers to kill wolves that kill cattle on private land, by limiting the size of the recovery area and by refusing to designate critical habitat where the wolves' survival would be a higher priority than extractive land uses.
"There are no limits on public-lands grazing, nor road closures to protect the wolves," Robinson says. "At least some of these wolves were probably shot by someone leaning out of a pickup truck."
The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife spent years working behind the scenes with government wildlife officials and the mountain communities, trying to alleviate concerns about wolf reintroduction.
To reduce worries about cattle depredation, the Washington, D.C.-based organization has established a private fund that will reimburse any rancher that can prove a wolf killed livestock.
"We are not Pollyanna out there saying wolves are not going to kill livestock. They will," says Defenders' director of species conservation Robert M. Ferris. "But we will pay compensation. Will they have a major impact? No. In the 10 years in administering the compensation fund in Montana, we have paid out only $60,000."
Cattle depredation by Mexican gray wolves is projected to be minuscule. FWS estimates that even if 100 wolves can be established in the Apache and Gila national forests, they will take no more than 34 cattle each year. Approximately 82,600 cattle graze in the wolf recovery area.
Defenders of Wildlife also conducts a public education campaign designed to dispel myths that wolves are a serious threat to human safety. No documentation exists of Mexican gray wolf attacks on humans.
"The chances of somebody being attacked by a wolf are so exceedingly low to not even be considered," Ferris says. "More people are killed each year by vending machines when they try to get their change back." Four died last year, he says.
Defenders' financial pledges and education efforts have been largely ineffectual.
Few mountain residents are in any mood to compromise. Taking a hard line against reintroduction has been successful. The program has foundered, with more than half the wolves shot or missing in less than a year.
"Every time we have tried to compromise with that side of aisle, we have been screwed, bruised and blued," says the farm bureau's Ness. "You can't compromise with people you can't trust."
Ferris is willing to extend the olive branch, but acknowledges there is little chance that discussions with wolf foes will be fruitful.
"Clearly, we are on different planets as far as we see this reality," says Ferris.
The shooting began less than a month after the chain-link acclimation pens were opened, freeing 11 wolves in three separate packs.
The smallest pack, the two-member Turkey Creek pack, was located farthest from Alpine--nearly 50 miles south--in a relatively dry juniper forest riven by canyons.
Cows, dogs and humans--the three things biologists wanted the wolves to avoid--were everywhere the wolves turned.
Two days prior to the release, wolf officials notified the U.S. Forest Service that two cows were within one mile of the wolf release site--an area off-limits to the public and ranchers. The wolf team asked the Forest Service to contact the owner to remove the cows.
But the cows remained, and on April 5 one of them had a calf. The Forest Service was again notified, but it took two days before the rancher arrived, and by then, the calf was missing. The calf was later found unharmed. It's uncertain whether the wolves ever encountered the cows, but neither the rancher nor the Forest Service seemed eager to protect the cattle.
A few days later, the Turkey Creek wolves showed up near a group of about 30 lion hunters and their dogs; the encampment had been set up about two miles from the wolves' release pen.
Press accounts report that the hunters left scrap food near the camp and that the scavenging wolves were coming close to humans. One hunter claimed he threw food scraps at the wolves, thinking they might be hungry.
Wolf reintroduction team personnel used fireworks to scare the wolves away.
The Turkey Creek wolves' next encounter with humans did not end well.
According to FWS, Tucson camper Richard Humphrey heard "thrashing and yipping" in the brush about 50 yards west of his campsite on the morning of April 28. The camp was located within one mile of the wolves' release site, but by then the closure had been lifted.
Humphrey determined wolves were fighting with one of his two dogs. When Humphrey went to investigate, the female wolf fled. But the male started moving toward the campsite, prompting the camper to shoot it from about 50 feet, FWS spokesman Hans Stuart says.
The wolf would have bled to death from the first shot, Stuart says, but the camper then got close to the wolf and shot it again "to put it out of its misery."
FWS cleared Humphrey of wrongdoing. Under the Endangered Species Act, a wolf may be killed only if it endangers human life. Ranchers are also allowed to kill a wolf if it attacks cattle on private property, but not on public land. Prosecution could bring a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Wolf-advocacy groups howled over the FWS decision to clear Humphrey.
"It's a travesty," says wolf researcher Tom Beno.
Wolf advocates say a necropsy showed the wolf was standing still and turned away from Humphrey--not attacking--at the time it was shot. The first bullet fired by Humphrey with a scoped .243-caliber rifle pierced both of the wolf's hind legs just above the knees.
"The wolf would have to be standing with both feet together directly broadside to the shooter to obtain this alignment of the wounds," says Richard Stroud, veterinary medical examiner for the federal government's National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.
In the wake of the shooting, Humphrey became something of a folk hero on the anti-wolf circuit. He was featured as the keynote speaker in a Catron County anti-environmental rally on August 8.
In a July 29 letter to Interior Secretary Babbitt, a coalition of environmental groups said Humphrey should be prosecuted, and warned that failure to do so would encourage others to harm wolves.
There were other harbingers that more wolves would soon be shot. But FWS criminal investigators apparently ignored one alarming tip.
In May, a Santa Fe wolf advocate, the aptly named Patricia Wolff, taped a telephone conversation she claims to have had with federal prison inmate Jody Lee "Chance" Cooper. On Wolff's tape, a man she says is Cooper claims he was offered a bounty to kill the wolves.
Cooper has since denied making the statements, but the tape, which can be heard on the Internet, sounds authentic--the man provided details only Cooper likely would have known. (See accompanying transcript.)
"They offered me $35,000 in cash to kill 'em all," the man says.
On the tape, the man says the bounty was offered by a Glenwood, New Mexico, rancher whom he refused to identify. The man says he rejected the offer because it wasn't enough money, and because he wanted the wolves to survive.
But the man suggests that he could kill wolves if he wanted to, saying he'd been "the predator's predator for a long time."
Wolff says she told FWS investigators about her conversation in May but that no one listened to the tape. After three wolves were shot between August 7 and November 7, Wolff contacted FWS agents again on November 9.
"I ranted and raved about why they weren't more aggressively going after the people killing the wolves," she says. "Then an agent came to the house and listened to the tape."
Wolff, who assures the man on the tape that she is not taping their conversation, says she believes Cooper should be held in prison until he reveals who posted the bounty to kill the wolves.
"There is someone in prison who has information about a federal crime to kill endangered species," Wolff says. "They should make him give the name, or keep him in jail."
Wolff will not get her wish; Cooper was released on December 11.
Federal wildlife criminal investigator Steve Middleton declined to comment on Wolff's tape other than to say Cooper is not a suspect in the shootings.
While Cooper couldn't have shot the wolves since he was in prison, he appears to be a likely candidate to have been recruited to hunt wolves.
The six-foot-five, 36-year-old Cooper describes himself as a "hunter cowboy." He has drifted around Arizona for several years, living mostly near Alpine and Safford. According to federal court documents, he has used five aliases, four dates of birth and three social security numbers.
State Game and Fish Department records say he is well-known to law enforcement agencies in the Southwest for hunting and firearms violations and is described as "spooky" by a state Department of Public Safety officer. His criminal record dates back to at least 1985, when he was convicted in Nevada for grand larceny of animals.
In September 1994, as a Game and Fish officer investigating a bear kill questioned Cooper in Springerville, Cooper allegedly asked the officer whether his bulletproof vest could stop a .458-caliber rifle bullet--which was the type of rifle Cooper had, Arizona Game and Fish records state.
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.
New Mexico, meanwhile, continued to balk.
Rather than overriding New Mexico's objections and also studying potential release sites there, FWS focused on Arizona.
"That's where the politics comes in," says Dave Henderson, director of the New Mexico Audubon Society, a member of the Wolf Action Group. "They really limited the scope and size of the primary reintroduction area."
As a result, the wolves can only be released in Greenlee County, on the Apache National Forest, an area comprising less than 15 percent of the entire wolf recovery area.
"The problem with the release area is it is just too small," says Mike Seidman, a Phoenix Zoo wolf keeper who monitored the wolves in the acclimation pens for months.
Not only is the release area too small, Seidman says it's located in the wrong part of the sprawling wolf recovery area.
"It's too close to the western border," Seidman says. "That's politically motivated. That's not biology driving that."
The location of the release area already has profoundly hampered the program. So far, the wolves have shown little interest in traveling very far east. Instead, several wolves have migrated to the west, one traveling as far as Show Low before she was recaptured with the help of a helicopter and a net gun; another headed north toward St. Johns and was recaptured.
Several other wolves have frequented the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation to the west of the recovery area. The White Mountain Apaches had formally opposed wolf reintroduction, but last summer passed a resolution stating the tribe would accept wolves that take up residence on the reservation, and any offspring. A formal agreement between the tribe and the FWS is being negotiated.
The tentative addition of the reservation adds 1.63 million acres of potential recovery area for the wolves to the west of the release area.
Environmental groups are calling for FWS to immediately begin reviewing areas in New Mexico's Gila National Forest and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area as potential release sites. These areas offer terrain and prey similar to the Apache National Forest sites and are more centrally located within the recovery area.
Forest Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group, has identified 620,000 acres of roadless areas with virtually no livestock in New Mexico's Gila National Forest as a suitable area for wolf release.
It is unlikely that FWS will take the Forest Guardians proposal seriously. FWS regional director Nancy Kaufman says the current release sites are the best ones.
"We looked at a whole host of sites for the EIS [environmental impact statement] and determined which ones we thought were the best, and we are using them," she says.
Not everyone in the program agrees with Kaufman's assessment.
Dave Parsons, the FWS wolf recovery leader, says the agency has no idea if there are suitable release sites in New Mexico.
"It is very difficult to speculate on that because we didn't do any release-site analysis on New Mexico," he says.
FWS biologist Wendy Brown says New Mexico's political opposition prevented the identification of possible release sites.
"If New Mexico had been interested in being a full cooperator in the project, it probably would have happened," Brown says.
Diane Boyd-Heger adds, "You cannot remove the politics, as much as I would like to. The reality is, they have to be released in Greenlee County."
The faint beep beneath the static on the radio receiver brought good news to Boyd-Heger as she drove through the heart of the Apache National Forest on a late November morning.
To an untrained ear, the blip was all but undetectable. But to one of the nation's most experienced wolf biologists, the sound thundered through the cool air, confirming that Mexican gray wolf No. 131 was nearby.
Even after two decades of tracking wolves in Romania, Minnesota, Montana and Idaho, Boyd-Heger still gets excited at the prospect of a wolf encounter. And for good reason. She is in a race against time--against Mother Nature and the onset of winter; against human nature and the crack of a rifle.
"I'm trying to get ahead of this wolf and get him caught," Boyd-Heger said as she turned the pickup down a Forest Service road lined with hunters' vehicles. "It's opening of elk season, and I'm really nervous and I want to get him caught. I don't want him with a bullet in him."
The wolf reintroduction team, led in the field by Boyd-Heger, was conducting a mop-up operation after a tumultuous year--five dead wolves, three removed from the program, one adult and one pup missing.
The shootings, combined with the wolves' wanderlust, forced biologists to recapture the two remaining alpha males who had lost their mates, and start over.
No. 131 is the alpha male of the six-member Hawk's Nest pack. Bullets already have killed two members of that pack. A third member would be gunned down within days. Another Hawk's Nest wolf, the alpha female, had been missing for months and is presumed dead. The fifth member of the pack was removed from the field after spending three weeks in and around Alpine.
Boyd-Heger wanted to capture No. 131 and put him back into an acclimation pen where he could bond with a female that was brought to replace his mate.
The disintegration of the Hawk's Nest pack sent No. 131 into a bit of a frenzy, including a near disastrous foray into a sheep pasture near Alpine, Boyd-Heger said.
"He just started wandering a lot the last three weeks," she said in her clipped Minnesota accent. "Until he settles down a little bit, it is going to be very difficult to catch him."
Boyd-Heger stopped the truck and set up an antenna that would provide a more precise location of No. 131.
"He's been places the last week where he's never been before," she said. "That's why I'd like to catch him before he blows through the town."
A few days earlier, the recovery team had captured the Campbell Blue pack's alpha male, No. 166. The fat and happy wolf was found on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, gorging on an elk. He was placed into a new acclimation pen on November 18 to begin bonding with an 18-month-old female wolf that was born at the Phoenix Zoo.
No. 166 was the mate to the female wolf injured in the elk encounter and later shot last August. He displayed some unique behavior in the aftermath of his mate's death.
"When she was killed, he continued to take care of that pup, provide food, and traveled with him," Boyd-Heger said while fiddling with the radio transmitter. "I thought that was really good for a lone male wolf, and they were doing pretty well."
But a few days later, the pup was gone.
"Right after the pup disappeared, the male showed up on the edge of [the town of] Nutrioso and just did some behavior he had never done before," she said.
For the first time, the Campbell Blue alpha male started hanging around people and cows.
"It was interesting his behavior was modified by the loss of his mate and the pup. We chased him out of there for a couple of days. He then went on his way and has been a good boy ever since."
Boyd-Heger is secretive about how she goes about catching wayward wolves. "You just have to think like a wolf," she said. "I've been doing this a long time."
Six feet tall, blond and tough, Boyd-Heger has been at the forefront of wolf research for 20 years. She has spent weeks at a time alone in the wilderness. She tracked the first wolf to enter Glacier National Park from Canada and used the data for her master's thesis at the University of Montana.
She exudes both warmth and tenderness for wolves, yet can be coldly analytical about their fate. The emotional ties she develops in the field are tempered by her scientific training, which includes a doctorate from the University of Montana in wolf genetics.
In the back of her truck are a half-dozen or so rubber-jawed leg-hold traps that Boyd-Heger uses to capture wayward wolves. Baits, usually elk carcass, are spread to lure the wolf, Boyd-Heger hinted at a secret ingredient.
"Maybe I'll save my urine for a trap," she said with a laugh before trooping into the woods to set a trap for No. 131.
But the Hawk's Nest alpha male headed back toward Alpine before venturing into New Mexico. Boyd-Heger would finally catch him on November 23 near Hannagan Meadow, and put him back in an acclimation pen.
With No. 131's capture, there were no Mexican gray wolves roaming free for the first time since March 29. The two pairs of wolves remained in their respective acclimation pens for the next three weeks until they were rereleased on December 11.
To keep hunters from mistaking them for coyotes, the reintroduction team marked the wolves with splotches of bright orange paint. The male wolves' radio collars have been painted bright orange, while the females' collars are fluorescent pink.
If the wolves can avoid bullets, the reintroduction team believes they have a good chance of mating and raising pups. Biologists hope the hunting and survival skills learned by the alpha males while they were free will assist the females in making the transition from captivity to the wild.
But no one knows whether the wolves will stick together.
"There is a trade-off in how long you hold the wolves in the pen," Boyd-Heger explained.
The longer the wolves stay in the pen, the more likely they will bond and be inclined to mate. But there is a downside to a long, confined courtship.
"The longer you hold them, the more habituated the male is going to become again to being fed and being around the pen," she said. "He's been out in the wild, free for seven months, and we don't want him to go backwards."
Starting new wolf packs in the wild is essential to the success of the project. The project lacks enough captive wolves to make a mass release, as was done in Yellowstone National Park, where wild wolves were transplanted en masse after being captured in the Canadian Rockies.
The Mexican gray wolf project must first select wolves with suitable genetic and behavioral characteristics for release from a pool of captive wolves held in zoos around the country. The chosen few are then transported to one of three isolated prerelease facilities, where they will remain for a year or more.
Two facilities are in New Mexico, including one located on a ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner, and the third is near Seattle. The wolf halfway houses are designed to minimize human contact.
"We try to precondition wolves to come out into the wild," Boyd-Heger said. "We don't take wolves out of the Phoenix Zoo or the Rio Grande Zoo and dump them out here. You are just asking for huge problems."
While providing time for wolves to get used to more natural settings, prerelease facilities also constrain the number of wolves available for release at any one time. Some environmental groups have been advocating a mass release of wolves in response to the shootings.
But Boyd-Heger said that's not an option.
"We have shortage of supply, definitely," Boyd-Heger said. "We don't have 50 wolves that are ready to go."
But there is a far more important reason for wolves to breed in the wild. It will only be after several generations in the forest that true, wild Mexican gray wolves will be roaming the countryside once again, she said.
"The wild-born pups of wild-born wolves--that's where the future of this project is," Boyd-Heger said. "These wolves here are just sort of expendable seed. I hate to say it because it sounds so callous.
"The first generation are sort of knucklehead wolves. The only thing they know is the chain-link fence and people bringing them food. Then all of a sudden they are in this wonderful new world. My theory is when the gates first opened and they stepped out, they probably spent weeks looking for the end of the fence."
She anticipates that once a pool of wild-born wolves starts to reproduce, and the first generation of captive wolves die off, there will be far fewer problems with wolves entering towns.
"The captive-raised wolves are more prone to hang around with people," she said.
Such behavior was exhibited by wolf No. 494, a two-year-old Hawk's Nest female who took up residence in Alpine for three weeks, occasionally rooting through trash cans at the Bear Wallow Cafe, a hangout for locals, ranchers and hunters.
"We did everything we could to discourage her. We tried throwing firecracker shells at her [and] rubber bullets. We chased her with a vehicle, threw rocks at her. She wouldn't leave," said Boyd-Heger.
The wolf's presence in town created havoc.
"Everybody was afraid it would kill their goat, or sheep or dog or cat or kids or whatever--any number of ugly scenarios of which any are possible," Boyd-Heger said.
"I mean, we don't know what will happen."
As it turned out, not much.
"She wasn't able to kill anything, except one night she got into a chicken coop. She got three chicks and a duck," she said.
On another occasion, the female wolf was nearly crushed after she started chasing mules and horses in a corral.
"She got rolled by one of the mules and boxed into a solid corner of the corral and we thought she would get killed," she said.
The encounter proved entertaining.
"Not only were we watching it, but it was Memorial Day weekend and there were people on the highway with binoculars watching a wolf get run down by a couple of mules," she said, laughing.
"So the potential was really hot for something bad to happen. Thank goodness the people of Alpine were open to calling us when they saw the wolf."
The wolf was captured and returned to captivity.
The Alpine wolf's trash-digging and proclivity for chasing domestic animals has been the exception rather than the rule. The wolves had been feeding themselves since early summer, Boyd-Heger said. So far, no ranchers have claimed that wolves have killed any livestock--although a ranch dog appears to have been killed by a wolf and a miniature horse was attacked and injured by a wolf.
While hunting season coincided with the apparently illegal shootings, the wolves that managed to avoid gunfire found a windfall in the form of ample food.
"There has just been a pile of dead elk, walking wounded with arrows sticking out of them, shots and bullets everywhere," Boyd-Heger said.
"Hunters are helping out wolf recovery," she noted. "Interesting twist."
Before hunting season, the wolves had been successful in killing elk calves and taking crippled, injured and old animals. One wolf, the Campbell Blue alpha male, learned to dig up mountain lion kills and was finding a steady supply of food.
The first documented elk kill was made by three yearling wolves from the Hawk's Nest pack on April 21. The older wolves didn't get in on the action for several days.
While the shootings and aberrant behavior have seriously hindered wolf recovery efforts, the relatively small release area contributed to problems with siting of the acclimation pens.
Two of the acclimation pens housing the three-member Campbell Blue pack and the six-member Hawk's Nest pack were located within four miles of each other. Wolf packs typically do not peacefully share territories. Wolf experts projected the Mexican gray wolf packs, averaging about five members, would have territories of approximately 200 square miles.
"I think they were put too close together, personally," said Boyd-Heger, who joined the recovery team after the sites were selected. "The two pens were essentially put into an area of shared territory."
Soon after the wolves were released, conflict erupted between the two packs.
"The [larger] Hawk's Nest pack came over and sort of just bullied and took over things," she said. "It appeared to me there were lots of altercations for a few days."
The Campbell Blue wolves moved on.
"Within a week of leaving, that female was killed [shot August 7]," Boyd-Heger said. "Maybe if the pens were not so close together, those wolves maybe would not have gone over there, but who knows?"
The reintroduction team is unlikely to make the same mistake again.
The acclimation pens have been moved much farther apart. Two of the pens are also much farther away from Alpine--with one new pen in the heart of Blue Range Primitive Area.
Whether the new arrangement will bring success remains to be seen. Two additional packs will be released early next year from the two southernmost acclimation pens. There also are plans to release a pair of wolves in the primitive area this winter without first holding the wolves in an acclimation pen, a process called "hard release."
Boyd-Heger said the Mexican gray wolves are at a particular disadvantage for a number of reasons:
* They are captive-bred and do not fear humans.
"Ninety percent of field resources are spent 'fixing' situations due to tameness of wolves--this needs to change," Boyd-Heger said.
* The wolves can easily be mistaken for coyotes, making them vulnerable to accidental shooting.
Boyd-Heger said the open nature of the Southwest ponderosa and juniper forests allows hunters to see hundreds of meters, leaving the wolves far more exposed to gunfire than wolves in Montana and Idaho, where forests are denser.
* And unlike the wolves in the Northern Rockies, which live in or near national parks where hunting is illegal, the Mexican gray wolves have no such sanctuary.
The wolves, Boyd-Heger said, clearly face a very difficult future.
"I do believe there are areas where wolves and people can co-exist," she said. "If the Blue Range is one of them remains to be seen."
But Diane Boyd-Heger won't be around to find out.
She has resigned from the wolf project effective January 15 to take a job with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Project in Helena, Montana.
Boyd-Heger said she is taking the position because "I now have the opportunity to go back home, to better future opportunities and increased pay."
Others familiar with the project believe that disagreements within the reintroduction team may have led her to forsake a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reintroduce the world's rarest wolf subspecies to its native habitat.
Boyd-Heger said there are no internal problems.
"I'm extremely upset and depressed," says Preserve Arizona Wolves' Bobbie Holaday of Boyd-Heger's pending departure. "It's a tragic loss for the project."
Besides her scientific training and tracking skills, Boyd-Heger was respected by residents--even those who strongly oppose wolf reintroduction.
"She is going to be difficult to replace," says Game and Fish spokesman Rory Aikens.
One official noted that Boyd-Heger's new FWS post will double the $25,000 annual salary she receives as a contract employee with Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
That fact that someone with Boyd-Heger's credentials was so poorly paid underscores the lack of financial commitment that Arizona Game and Fish has devoted to the reintroduction project.
Other than law enforcement, the state has two full-time positions assigned to wolf reintroduction. But even that overstates Arizona's commitment.
The federal government, through FWS, pays 75 percent of the state employees' salaries.
Fourth-generation rancher Jim Winder heads for his pickup, stops, and looks around at the vastness of his spread.
"There's not much money in ranching, but you can't beat the office," he says.
Winder is doing everything he can to make the "office" as ecologically healthy as possible, including welcoming endangered species to his land knowing they will complicate his life.
While nearly all ranchers cringe at the thought of an endangered species turning up on their property, Winder wants to reintroduce an endangered fish, the Rio Grande chub, into a creek near the ranch house.
"I'm not going to get paid for it, but I feel I'm creating value for society," he says.
So he welcomes the coyotes, mountain lions, golden eagles, and now the Mexican gray wolf, onto more than 108,000 acres of range land he owns and leases 20 miles south of Hillsboro, New Mexico.
Winder is the type of rancher Secretary of the Interior Babbitt envisions as embracing both the wolf and the cow. Even better, Winder is not waiting for society to reward him. He's creating a market for himself by improving the biodiversity on his ranch.
"We are trying to develop the conservation value of the ranch resources into products and services that I can sell," Winder says over a cup of coffee inside his spacious kitchen.
Winder says ranchers are overreacting to wolf reintroduction.
"If you just sit back and take the emotion out of this, there are simple facts you need to look at," he says. "One thing is the ranchers are not top dogs anymore--economically and politically, our power base has eroded.
"If you keep playing the game like you're the bad apple, and you're not, you're going to get whupped. Now is the time to keep the goodwill that ranchers have with people and the position they have as stewards on the land and evolve that," he says.
For more than a decade, Winder has been combining his skills as a college-educated agricultural economist and his lifelong commitment to the land to develop new methods of ranching that not only improve the health of the range, but help his operation thrive and expand at a time when many of his neighbors are going belly up.
Since 1985, Winder has increased his cow/calf operation from 200 head to 1,500. He's purchased two neighboring ranches and now controls 18,000 acres of private land and leases 90,000 acres of public land.
He says a crucial factor in his expansion was his decision 12 years ago to stop shooting predators. He's says he's lost only two calves to coyotes since.
Rather than shoot the predator, he actively manages his animals and has trained them to move together in large herds, which discourages predators from attacking. The last thing a predator wants is to be injured.
"We raised the perceived cost of that calf higher than what the predator is willing to pay," he says.
It wasn't a big step, then, for Winder to embrace wolf reintroduction. Not that he has a warm and fuzzy feeling about the wolf.
"Wolves make me nervous. They kill deer. They kill cows," he says.
But they also can be profitable.
Winder has signed an agreement with Defenders of Wildlife to allow wolves on his ranch. In exchange, Winder has become the first rancher in the country to market a special line of hamburger and jerky bearing the Defenders' "Wolf Country Beef" label.
The label brings a premium price for hamburger--about $3.60 a pound--and has allowed Winder to double the price he gets from older cows that he sells for hamburger.
Besides increasing his profits, Winder says the Wolf Country Beef label allows consumers to make a choice concerning how they want their public lands managed.
"The wolf is a good marquee issue," he says.
Although no wolves have reached Winder's ranch, it's possible they will be there in a few years.
Winder looks forward to seeing wolves--and selling the opportunity to see wolves to others.
As he walks from the farm house to the barn, Winder points up to a grassless hillside 100 yards away.
"What if you had a wolf howling up on top of that hill? What would the value of that resource be?" he asks.
He turns and smiles, knowing the answer.
"It would be great."