Pack Mentality

The fur flies as ranchers and wolf-huggers argue over a plan to put lobos in the wilderness

Last fall, Parsons said he reached an agreement with his supervisor to take advantage of an early retirement program and be immediately rehired by FWS as the wolf recovery coordinator. Since Parsons would get retirement pay, FWS would have saved money, having to pay only about half of his former salary.

Parsons retired. But FWS reneged on its pledge, he said.

"What happened was the regional director [Kaufman] intervened and canceled that personnel action," Parsons said. "She never gave a valid reason. The only reason she gave, which was stated in the Albuquerque Journal, was she did it to maintain project continuity, which is pretty convoluted logic if you ask me."

Kaufman did not return a call seeking comment, but her office released a copy of a letter she sent to the Journalconcerning Parsons.

"If Mr. Parsons wished to continue as the Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator all he had to do was remain in his position," Kaufman stated in her letter. "Mr. Parsons will be missed. His work was excellent."

The personnel action came a week after Parsons met with Department of Interior officials in Washington, D.C. The Interior officers had approved a plan to capture wolves that had been released in the Apache National Forest in Arizona, and rerelease the wolves into the Leopold wilderness, where they would have less contact with humans and cattle.

Many wolf advocates believe the Leopold wilderness has always been the best place to release the wolves. However, strong opposition from New Mexico ranchers prevented FWS from developing a recovery plan that included direct release of wolves into New Mexico. Instead, FWS drafted a circuitous plan that required wolves first to be released in Arizona. While the wolves can legally disperse into New Mexico, they cannot be directly released there. The rules governing the project, however, allow the FWS to recapture wolves that have had contact with humans or cattle, and rerelease them anywhere in the recovery area, including New Mexico ("Wildlife Disservice," December 17, 1998).

Parsons' meeting in Washington cleared the way to begin the process to get those wolves released into the Leopold wilderness. He was jubilant, but his joy was short-lived. A week later, he was out of a job.

"They still have not replaced me, and it's going to be another two months until someone is on the job as project leader," Parsons said. "That job has been vacant now from the first of October until sometime probably in April." (The FWS is expected to announce this week that it has hired Brian Kelly of the red wolf recovery program in North Carolina as the new coordinator.)

Kaufman's decision not to rehire Parsons created more delays within FWS, meaning that hearings on the New Mexico releases were staged at the last possible moment. The hearings, Parsons said, should have been held months ago. As it stands, FWS cannot move forward and place wolves in the wilderness until at least March 15, when the public comment period closes.

Timing is crucial to the success of the program. The recaptured wolves are currently breeding in captivity and could have pups as soon as early April. FWS biologists want to release these wolves into the wilderness before the pups are born.

Bruce Palmer, an FWS ecologist, says a pregnant wolf will stay near the site where her pack is released.

"She'll get used to that, she cannot go very far. She'll den up, have her pups, and they will use that area and it will become a home base for them and it will become their primary territory," he explains. "That way we can keep control of their movements. If she's not pregnant, she has no tie, and we release them, they may wander any which direction."

With the clock running, FWS hurriedly scheduled public hearings in Reserve and Silver City. Ranchers attempted to stall the hearing process, and nearly succeeded in having the Silver City hearing canceled. FWS scheduled the hearing in a small lecture hall on the Western New Mexico State University campus. The hall quickly filled, with people jamming the aisles and lobby.

Police ordered the doors closed, while another 50 people remained outside. Ranchers began protesting, demanding that the meeting be canceled unless everyone could be heard. Luckily for the FWS, campus police hastily were able to move the meeting to the much larger fine arts center auditorium.

The chaotic nature of the hearings, Parsons said, is typical of the bureaucratic problems that have plagued the wolf recovery program under Kaufman's direction.

"The kind of delays that we experienced with upper-level management making key decisions has always kept our back up against the wall . . . ," Parsons said. "You know, we are always scrambling to beat a clock, beat the breeding season, to get the wolves out at the most critical times, whatever. It's been a perennial problem in the project. Here we are scrambling again."

Contact John Dougherty at 602-229-8445 or online at john.dougherty@newtimes.com

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