The White Mountain town of Alpine is an unlikely setting for a federal conspiracy.
Harbored in a picturesque mountain meadow surrounded by pine-studded hills, the town has one stop sign, a gas station, a general store, and a blacksmith shop. It's the kind of place where residents leave their doors unlocked and neighbors help each other with their bathroom plumbing.
But in the forests around Alpine, a whodunit mystery is unfolding that has upset the tranquility of this slice of the American Southwest - and may determine the outcome of a closely watched federal wildlife recovery program.
Five wolves have been shot to death in what US Fish and Wildlife officials believe is a systematic effort to undermine a program designed to revive the Mexican gray wolf population.
In this latest drama pitting man against wolf, environmentalists suspect area ranchers who Foppose the reintroduction effort. Ranchers blame hunters from Tucson and Phoenix. But they're also taking the opportunity to demand that the federal government halt what they believe is an ill-conceived attempt to force the wolves on agricultural interests in Arizona and New Mexico.
The tensions surrounding the program symbolize the clash between science and local values that has met many attempts to reestablish endangered species in the wild. But few have been as acrimonious as the plan to save El lobo - the Mexican gray wolf.
Federal authorities have no intention of backing off. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently reiterated that the wolves are here to stay, and the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release an additional 10 to 15 wolves between December and March. The goal is to have at least 100 of them eventually living in the Apache and Gila national forests along the Arizona-New Mexico state line.
Wolves have been all but gone from the Southwest since the 1950s, hunted by the federal government and by ranchers who saw them as a threat to livestock. The last Mexican gray wolf seen in the wild was shot to death near Alpine, Texas, in 1970.
Biologists consider this to be the most critical wolf-recovery project so far because El lobo is the most genetically unique and most endangered subspecies of gray wolf in North America.
About 150 Mexican gray wolves are living in captivity as a result of a breeding program begun in Tucson with five animals. Amid much fanfare, Secretary Babbitt brought 11 of the wolves to eastern Arizona in January. The wolves were placed in enclosures and fed carcasses until March, when they were released. Since then, they have successfully hunted elk and reproduced, evidence that the program is working, say wildlife experts.
But of the original 11 wolves, only two males remain, and neither is roaming free. They were recaptured last week and placed in enclosures with two new females. "We're still optimistic [the breeding program] will work," says Tom Bauer, a spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The first wolf to be shot was killed by a camper when it attacked a dog. The shooter, a retired postal worker, went voluntarily to authorities and eventually was cleared of wrongdoing.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a wolf may be killed only if it endangers human life. Ranchers are also allowed to kill a wolf if it attacks cattle on private property, but not on public land. Prosecution could bring a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. The other four shootings are still under investigation.
Besides the five that were shot, three wolves were recaptured and another is presumed dead. Among the wolves that were killed was the female that gave birth to the first wolf pup born in Arizona in half a century. The pup is also presumed dead.
Environmentalists were angered when Fish and Wildlife decided not to prosecute the camper who killed the first wolf. They claimed he changed his story to avoid charges, failing to deter later shootings in August, October, and November. The fifth wolf was found shot last week.
Despite a rumor that a bounty is being offered to kill the wolves, federal officials are careful not to accuse area ranchers, who see the reintroduction program as an assault by a heavy-handed government on a lifestyle they have enjoyed for hundreds of years.
Sam Luce, a retired doctor who manages a herd near Alpine, says he favored the initial plan to release wolves into part of the Apache National Forest. The plan made sense, he says, because of the area's remote location. He felt deceived, however, when biologists began releasing wolves in multiple-use areas near Alpine - including close to his ranch.
In May, he had to stand by while a wolf killed a cattle dog 40 feet from his front door. Defenders of Wildlife, which reimburses ranchers for their losses, paid him $150 for a dog he said would cost up to $5,000 to replace. "They did that just so they could print in the papers that the owner had been compensated," he says.
Now that the wolves are being shot, Mr. Luce says the US Fish and Wildlife Service is not responding by offering to work with local people to address their concerns. Instead, it is sending in more federal agents.
So far, the wolves have not attacked any livestock. Biologists agree the wolves can be expected to kill some, as they have in other wolf-recovery areas. But what most bothers ranchers is the fear that wolves may be used to drive people off public lands.
Barbara Marks owns a ranch in the primary wolf recovery zone. The 260-acre ranch was homesteaded by her husband's family in 1891. Her 220 head of cattle also graze along 59,000 acres of public land.
These days, the Marks are restricted from grazing cattle near the river because of the loach minnow, a threatened species. They've seen one rancher's public-grazing permit reduced to around 40 head from more than 200, and watched another family give up ranching. "We believe we've been entrusted with the care of this forest," she says. "It's not in our best interest to do anything that would harm it."
Driving along the river, past stands of juniper and pinion pine, Mrs. Marks points to a field where her husband's ancestors first built a house and were later buried. "Man has been a part of this ecosystem for a long time," she says. "We need to be included in the equation."
Still, others say man and wolves can coexist. "They do live together," says Bill Route of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. "It is possible."