On a cold, wind-whipped November morning, about 90 minutes south of Albuquerque, N.M., a line of people faces off against a pack of wolves. They clutch poles, nets, and lassos, props not necessarily meant for use, but to make them look bigger. A US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) official tells them not to worry, there’s little danger. But if a wolf tries to break the line, don’t go sticking out a limb.
Most of these wolves, an endangered Southwestern subspecies, were born and bred in captivity. They’re the fruit of a 25-year-old plan by the FWS to reestablish the Mexican wolf in the wild.
The captive wolves live between two hills on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, their enclosures largely isolated from human sights, sounds, and smells as a rewilding exercise. They can’t be habituated to a human presence; without sufficient fear of people, they won’t last long in the wild. Indeed, only the most fearful will be released at all.
The animals’ alarm has been evident since the first truck came into sight up the dirt road. They lope tirelessly around the well-worn trails that line the perimeters of their enclosures. They occasionally leap up against the 12-foot-high chain link fences. Innate fear is partly responsible, explains Maggie Dwire, an assistant coordinator with the FWS’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. But wolves also anticipate – and presumably dread – the chase, muzzling, poking, and prodding that often accompany human visits. “That’s fine with me,” she says.
On command, the line moves forward. No wolf sedatives will be administered today. But too much frenzy, and the wolves might simply drop dead in what wildlife experts call “capture myopathy.” Today’s exercise is for the wolves’ own good, but the scene – a row of tool-wielding homo sapiens moving steadily toward increasingly frantic wolves – evokes the long and complicated history between the two species. Some Native American groups viewed wolves as equals of a sort, a social animal that also hunted cooperatively.
But as Europeans colonized North America with livestock in tow, wolves were systematically poisoned and hunted off the land. For much of the past century, the FWS, now charged with bringing the wolf back, headed that extermination.
The Southwestern wolf-reintroduction program has been less successful than reintroduction programs in the northern Rockies. Different socioeconomic realities and a different landscape have complicated the Mexican wolf’s comeback. Some ranchers near the recovery area, a 6,745-square-mile swath straddling the New Mexico-Arizona border, say wolves have no place there. Conservationists counter that the recovery area, 95 percent national forest, is public land and should be wild, predators included. They cite the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – the Mexican wolf is the most endangered of five subspecies in the US – and they point to evidence that top predators enhance ecosystem health.
Each camp accuses FWS of favoring the other. Conservationists say FWS has caved to ranching interests and failed in its mandate to recover the wolf. Ranchers charge it with destroying their way of life.
People may be tougher to manage than wolves
“We might have underestimated the social implications of wolf reintroduction,” says FWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle, of the recovery plan. While some dispute this characterization – plenty of research was done on social realities, they say – it does raise a question of rising concern among “hard” scientists. Is conservation about managing nature, or people?
After wolves returned to Yellowstone in 1995, aspens, long mysteriously declining, returned. Willow stands along riverbanks grew more robust. The greater diversity of trees hosted more bird species. Scientists concluded that, during wolves’ long absence from the area, elk and deer had overgrazed willow and aspen. Now, wary of ambush, they avoid dense stands of trees.
“The elk have changed their behavior based on the risk of predation,” says ecologist William Ripple at Oregon State University, Corvallis. The insight: Predators affect ecosystems not only by direct predation, but by inspiring fear.
Smaller than its northern cousin, the Mexican wolf once ranged throughout the “sky islands” – higher elevations areas – of the US Southwest and Mexico. By 1970, poisoning and trapping had eradicated it from the US. By the late 1970s, scientists could find just five individuals in northern Mexico. All Mexican wolves today – some 300 in zoos and breeding centers across the country and 52 in the wild – descend from just seven individuals.
“Evolution never ceases, and now it’s taking place in a captive environment,” says Dave Parsons, formerly with the FWS and now with the Rewilding Institute, a conservation organization in Albuquerque. “The longer they’re in captivity, the less adaptable they’re going to be … as reintroduction stock.”
The first captive-bred Mexican wolves entered the wild 10 years ago. The goal: 102 wolves in nine years. But the population is just half that. Pro-wolfers often fault the FWS. The agency has killed or removed (to permanent captivity) 47 wolves. Poachers have taken 29.
“With one hand they’re putting them out, and with the other hand they’re taking them back,” says Michael Robinson, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, N.M. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is operating a control program masquerading as a recovery program.”
Stock losses rise 4 to 10 percent
A 2007 resolution by the American Society of Mammalogists called for suspension of all predator control until the goal of 100 wolves was reached.
But ranchers say there’s no room for wolves here.
Hugh McKeen, commissioner of Catron County, a locus of antiwolf sentiment, says some ranchers have seen yearly stock losses rise from 4 to 10 percent. Defenders of Wildlife offers compensation, but, says Mr. McKeen, the criteria are so stringent that, for every successful claim, many others go uncompensated. (Defenders has paid $106,493 for 176 domestic animals killed by wolves in the Southwest.)
Yet several polls show widespread public support for wolf reintroduction in both Arizona and New Mexico. Joe Saenz, a Chiricahua Apache and owner of WildHorse Outfitters in Silver City, applauds the wolf’s return. They attract customers eager to hear and see them, he says. They’ll also help restore an out-of-balance landscape. He understands ranchers’ concerns, but ranchers operate fine with wolves and grizzlies present elsewhere.
“You just have to be more vigilant,” he says. “Some teach people to kill all the snakes so you can walk around the grass. We were taught to walk carefully.”
Others raise the issue of what should happen on public lands, and who should pay for it. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that grazing allotments on public land cost taxpayers $115 million yearly. Ranchers pay $1.35 per cow-calf pair monthly. Grazing on private land, meanwhile, costs between $10 and $20 per pair monthly, says John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M. “It ends up being quite a subsidy,” he says.
No shortage of issues or complexity
Historically, the US government enticed people to the West with the promise of free predator control and cheap grazing. Modern conservationists call that “welfare.” Ranchers still see themselves as pioneers on land no one else wanted. To them, the wolf-recovery program is meddling – or worse, betrayal.
“Why do you have to destroy a people to recover an animal or protect an animal?” says Jess Carey, Catron County’s wolf investigator. The ESA “wasn’t set up to destroy families, but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”
Says Parsons, “There’s no shortage of issues, and there’s no shortage of complexity.”
Defenders of Wildlife says it is restructuring its compensation program to share the costs of antiwolf measures up front – fences and extra rangers – to preempt predation rather than pay for livestock already lost.
Parsons and Horning hope to buy and retire grazing allotments, an idea that interests some ranchers, at least privately, says Parsons. The obstacle: guaranteeing that allotments won’t be reauctioned later. That depends on federal legislation that doesn’t exist yet, he says.
Tuggle thinks ranchers are integral to the program’s success. They’re natural stewards, and working ranches are bulwarks against wilderness-unfriendly development, he says. He intends to create a fund and pay for proactive antiwolf ranching practices with the interest. And, alluding to recent political shifts, Tuggle foresees an eventual revamping of the recovery program.
“The program is not going away,” he says. But “it’s absolutely critical that we do not make the mistake we made when we first started. And that is to say ‘Here is the wolf program. Here are the wolves. Deal with it.’ ”