Wolfing Down Beef

A Mexican gray wolf pack learns to kill cattle and loses its freedom

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the eight wolves of the Gavilan pack as part of its Mexican gray wolf reintroduction experiment in eastern Arizona, it thought the wolves were too far from livestock to cause any problems. What the Service didn't know was that a rancher in the area, violating an order from the U.S. Forest Service to prevent overgrazing, had not removed his cattle from a particular pasture in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

The wolves found the cattle, and, by September, they had killed three cows.

Now, most of the wolves have been captured and moved east toward New Mexico.

Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity calls it "wolves learning to prey on cattle through his illegal grazing."

"As a practical matter," he says, "wolves learn to prey on certain animals through practical experience. So they were set up, in a way, through their first experience on [the rancher's] allotment."

The wolf reintroduction experiment began in March 1998 after years of debate and opposition from ranchers. The environmentalists' argument is that wolves, like all predators, are valuable parts of the ecosystem in that they keep down deer and elk populations by culling the weak and infirm from the herds. They also keep herds from staying in one spot too long, which prevents overgrazing and improves forage for all species, domestic livestock included. Then, when the native game proliferates because of the improved forage, the predators have something to eat other than livestock.

Gray wolf packs released above the Mogollon Rim have not yet taken livestock, but two packs below the Rim have, and subsequently have been removed from the wild.

Coyotes are opportunistic predators that will eat anything at any time, but wolves are more doglike in their routines. They fall into ruts. Or rather, they develop a "search image for appropriate prey," as Wendy Brown, acting project leader of the FWS gray wolf experiment, puts it.

"Since they started on cattle and figured out a method for killing them," Brown says, "maybe they weren't that interested in deer [a more typical form of wolf chow] or maybe there weren't that many deer in the area. We honestly don't know that they never killed any deer."

She does know that they killed cows.

"The animals we've released in higher game densities are doing fine," says Val Asher, a wildlife biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "The animals that have been released in lower game densities but are away from people are the ones starting to cue in on cattle."

The higher game densities, coincidentally, are at higher altitudes.

"Looking at the other two packs above the [Mogollon] Rim," Asher says, "they've tested cows -- we've seen them do it -- but they're not killing cows. They also have a lot of native prey."

Another group of wolves, called the Pipestem pack, has already been removed from the wild for killing cattle and harassing ranchers' dogs. Overall, according to Defenders of Wildlife, which runs a program to compensate ranchers for cattle killed by reintroduced wolves, there have been seven documented livestock losses in the two years that wolves have been running free.

The Gavilan pack was first released in the spring of 1999, then soon captured and helicoptered to an area called Horse Springs Canyon where FWS biologists thought they'd find ample game and run less risk of encountering cows. The biologists were wrong.

"The cattle were in places that we did not anticipate they were going to be at that time of year," says Brown. "We expected those cattle to be farther down south on the [grazing] allotment. We expected that the deer would be farther down the canyon. That's the whole reason we put them there in the first place."

On August 9, FWS personnel watched the pack's alpha male and the yearling trot past some cows, not seeming to pay attention, an apparent good sign. A day later, a dead cow was found. Then on August 30, there was another, and on September 7, yet another.

The cows were not supposed to be there. Because of ongoing drought in the area, the Forest Service had ordered the rancher, Carlyle Cathcart, to remove cattle from one pasture and reduce the stocking rate on his entire allotment. Carlyle appealed that order.

Environmentalists from the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife say that Cathcart's cattle were grazing illegally. The district forest ranger, Frank Hayes, prefers to say that Cathcart was "out of compliance."

Either way, Defenders refused to reimburse Cathcart for the dead cows because of the glitch.

"This is the first time in 12 years of operating a livestock compensation fund that we've run into the problem of illegally present livestock," says Craig Miller of Defenders.

Cathcart lives without a phone in a remote and inaccessible part of eastern Arizona. He could not be reached for comment on this story, although New Times left a message for him with the local sheriff who promised to deliver it.

For Miller to reach Cathcart's ranch, he had to wait six hours for flood waters on the Blue River to recede enough that he could drive across.

Miller told Cathcart that he would not be paying for the dead cows. But, he says, he did offer to pay for electric fencing to keep the wolves out or for a ranch hand to help Cathcart move the livestock south and away from the area to minimize conflict with the wolves.

"Moving them south would have brought him into compliance with the [Forest] Service and into an area that was more compatible for his livestock," Miller says. "And he refused."

Modern ranchers have more sophisticated ways of dealing with predators than the usual method of dropping off the cows in the spring and picking them up in the fall, "expecting the Forest Service to baby-sit them in the interim," as Miller puts it. That technique worked just fine after wolves were eradicated from Arizona early in the 1900s. Miller hoped to convert Cathcart.

After the third depredation, the Fish and Wildlife Service realized it had no choice but to move the wolf pack.

"We feared this was only going to continue to happen," Brown says.

By disturbing the wolves from their resting places and by seeding the route with road-kill carcasses and other wolf delicacies (besides beef), wildlife biologists managed to "bump" the pack several miles toward the New Mexico border.

"They were good for several months," says Game and Fish's Val Asher. But in December they took another rancher's cow and a bull, variably estimated at 900 or 1,500 pounds -- either way a large enough animal to indicate that the pack had become very good at killing cattle. Fish and Wildlife decided to remove them altogether.

"Right or wrong, these wolves have figured out how to kill cattle very efficiently," says Brown. "And if you leave them in an area where cattle are abundant, they're going to continue to do it."

The naughty wolves may be broken up and set free with other future wolf packs. The alpha male will never be rereleased.

Craig Miller says that this is how it must be. "You don't want them passing those traits on to younger wolves," he says.

Michael Robinson at the Center for Biological Diversity does not agree. "What we want to do is get that pack of wolves back into the wild where there are no cattle and give them a second chance," he says.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: michael.kiefer@newtimes.com

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