Pack Mentality

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

 Silver City, New Mexico

Dave Parsons approached the microphone, silencing the raucous crowd jammed into an auditorium at Western New Mexico State University.

Parsons' turn came more than an hour into a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hearing that saw one speaker after another use their allotted two minutes to tell three FWS officials why releasing Mexican gray wolves into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in New Mexico would bring either salvation or damnation to the Western way of life.

A jammed hearing.
John Dougherty
A jammed hearing.

Cheers, jeers, boos, moos and wolf howls punctuated the contentious gathering of more than 500. The March 2 Silver City gathering was the second of two hearings held last week to determine whether to release the endangered wolves into the New Mexico wilderness, which abuts Arizona. Most of the comments were emotional pleas of environmentalists and ranchers seeking to return the "world to the way it was" or "save our children" from the dreaded wolf. Standing ovations accompanied the most inflammatory remarks.

But when the moderator announced that Parsons was the next speaker, the histrionics stopped -- at least for a while.

Parsons actually knew what he was talking about.

The Mexican gray wolf recovery program was his baby. At least it was until last fall, when he fell victim to a bureaucratic power struggle that left him without a job after 25 years with FWS, including the past nine as coordinator of the Mexican gray wolf recovery program.

For years, it was Parsons who was sitting on the stage, conducting hearings for the FWS. On this cold night, he addressed his former colleagues as a private citizen, encouraging them to release the wolves into the wilderness.

The wolves FWS wants to release in New Mexico were recaptured this year in Arizona after two packs killed about a half-dozen livestock. New Mexico ranchers vehemently oppose releasing any wolves in the state, especially wolves that have killed cattle.

But Parsons said that is precisely why these wolves should be released into the roadless wilderness, which includes more than 700,000 acres of cattle-free terrain. The wilderness, he said, offers the wolves plenty of elk for prey and isolation from humans and cattle.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can legally move them to any location in that area to resolve conflicts and improve the wolves' chances for survival," Parsons told the panel to rousing cheers from wolf supporters.

But well-organized wolf opponents wouldn't let Parsons' debut as a citizen wolf advocate end easily.

As Parsons walked down an aisle toward the back of the auditorium, he was confronted by J. Zane Walley, a self-described journalist and member of the Paragon Foundation, an Alamogordo, New Mexico-based group that claims to defend constitutional rights.

During the first wolf hearing, held the evening before in the New Mexico village of Reserve, Walley had unleashed a bombastic statement before the same panel with a standing-room-only crowd of about 250 ranchers and environmentalists.

"What we generally do is sue federal agencies," Walley had said to thunderous applause.

He pointed at FWS biologist Wendy Brown and yelled, "Wendy Brown, when one of these children die up here because of these wolves, how are you going to feel?"

The week before the hearings, Walley hosted an anti-wolf rally in Glenwood, a small community on the banks of the San Francisco River where hunting, ranching and outfitting are the pillars of the economy. According to local news accounts, more than 1,000 people attended the February 26 gathering to plot strategy for the hearings.

Apparently, one of the tactics Walley planned to use was intimidation.

Walley got his chance in Silver City.

After Parsons concluded his remarks, Walley blocked Parsons' path and was joined by several ranchers who surrounded Parsons. Walley could be heard cursing about "the goddamned wolves."

"I don't know if you can call it a threat," Parsons said moments after the confrontation, "but he said, 'I hate your fucking ass.' And the guy beside him said he's not the only one that feels that way."

(This reporter approached to photograph and record the confrontation. Without provocation, Walley punched this reporter in the stomach. After a brief exchange of words, police escorted this reporter and Walley outside where, after at first denying throwing a punch, Walley finally admitted that he had, and apologized in front of Silver City police.)

The wolf-release program began in January 1998, when 11 wolves in three packs were turned loose in Arizona, in the Apache National Forest near Alpine. Five of those wolves were shot. Since the program began, 42 wolves have been included in the wild population. As of last week, eight wolves remain in the wild. Eleven wolves that were involved in cattle depredation have been recaptured and are eligible for possible rerelease in the Leopold wilderness.

The fear-based hatred for the wolves expressed by many ranchers remains deep and will continue to threaten the Mexican gray wolf recovery program. Not only is the program hectored by Walley and his cohorts -- some told the FWS they intend to shoot any wolf they see -- it has suffered from FWS mistakes.

Parsons said a series of foul-ups has endangered the program, which aims to establish a population of 100 wolves in New Mexico and Arizona national forests. He said FWS regional director Nancy Kaufman is to blame.

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 Journal concerning 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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