Wildlife Disservice

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"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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty