Wildlife Disservice

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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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty