Reintroduced gray wolves fighting tooth and nail
Despite shootings, they’re coming back
By Mitch Tobin
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
BLUE RANGE PRIMITIVE AREA – Mexican gray wolves would be doing a lot
better if people would stop shooting them.
Illegal shooting has claimed at least 20 wolves since reintroduction began
in the Southwest in 1998, and bullets remain the No. 1 killer of wolves
along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Federal officials also have sanctioned the shooting of two more wolves
that wouldn’t stop eating cows. Even wolves that steer clear of livestock
face a stressful relocation if they leave a 9,290-square-mile recovery
area whose outline is based more on politics than biology.
But despite the unsolved shootings, a management style officials admit is
heavy-handed and the age-old contempt for wolves that persists among many
residents here, the wolves are starting to come back.
At least 50 wolves are now in the wild – halfway to the goal of getting
100 to roam the rugged Blue Range by 2008. Wolves are taking down
full-grown elk and pumping out enough pups that releases of captive-bred
animals have been scaled back.
“It’s functioning as a population now,” said Colleen Buchanan, assistant
recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We don’t
have to be so concerned about individual animals as we used to be. You
have to put the losses in that perspective.”
Irony pervades a program that’s already spent $10 million to undo past
policies. Fish and Wildlife’s precursor – the U.S. Biological Survey – led
the 20th century extermination of the Mexican subspecies. Canis lupus
baileyi is named for biologist Vernon Bailey, the founder of the control
program who proudly reported in 1908 that hunters had killed 127 wolves in
Arizona and 232 in New Mexico.
In 2005, Fish and Wildlife may revise its rules so wolves can leave the
recovery area. Environmentalists also want to return wolves to other parts
of their historic range, including “sky island” mountains near Tucson and
the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon.
But even as activists talk of expansion, foes are fighting the existing
Fear along the Blue River
This fall, ground zero for human-wolf conflict has been along the Blue
River, home to about 60 ranchers and others who live on private parcels
tucked within the nation’s last remaining primitive area.
The Forest Service describes the area as “a sort anachronism, with
wilderness designation more or less permanently ‘pending.’ ” The Census
Bureau still classifies surrounding Greenlee County as “frontier” because
it’s so sparsely settled.
No one is accusing residents along the Blue of shooting wolves, but the
nuisance created by a newly released pack has stiffened local opposition.
The idea of wolves howling may give urban residents a warm and fuzzy
feeling. Along the Blue, it leaves some in a cold sweat and asking why
wolves aren’t put in Phoenix and Tucson if people there love them so much.
“When the wolves come down, I don’t sleep the rest of the night,” said
Jean Hutchison, a native Tucsonan who moved to the area in 1987.
Hutchison said the wolves have increased her labor and costs because she
must keep her livestock indoors at night and buy feed because it’s too
risky to let them graze in the open.
“They impact our economy, our lifestyle and our very basic right to feel
safe and secure,” she said. “Isn’t man supposed to be the top dog?”
At an April 23 meeting down in Morenci, residents pleaded with officials
not to release wolves nearby and predicted they’d come down to the Blue.
But on July 27, two adults and three pups were set free, in part to make
up for the illegal shooting of six alpha wolves in 2003. By September, the
Aspen pack was at the post office in Blue.
The wolves have scuffled with two dogs but haven’t killed any livestock,
and officials say they still aren’t enough of a problem to warrant
recapture. Still, biologists are now stationed along the Blue virtually
24/7, ready to scare off the wolves with firecrackers and shouting.
The government has given some residents boxes with bullhorns that blare
the sound of gunfire, sirens and helicopters when activated by wolves’
radio collars. The captive-bred wolves may still associate people with
food, and the aversive conditioning is meant to reverse that.
The wolves are still naive, but largely avoiding people, said Shawn Farry,
an Arizona Game and Fish biologist who has been stationed overnight on the
“When push comes to shove, the animals will lose, so it’s in their
interest to learn to give people a wide berth,” he said.
Sharon Gould, who runs an outfitting business with her husband, said she
appreciates the government efforts, “but it’s closing the barn door after
the horse is out.” The Goulds are going to move because they fear wolves
will attack the 15 expensive hound dogs they contract out for lion
Rancher Barbara Marks, whose husband’s family settled here in 1891, said
she can deal with other predators, but grizzlies and wolves had to go.
“They’re kind of like criminals in society,” she said. “You remove them
because they don’t play well with others.”
Animosity toward wolves probably stretches back to prehistoric hunters who
competed with the animals for big game.
“Men and wolves have been at odds ever since,” writes Arizona State
University biologist David E. Brown in “The Wolf in the Southwest: The
Making of an Endangered Species.”
Wolves once roamed almost anywhere there was forest in Arizona. By the
early 20th century their range may have expanded because settlers imported
a new food source: livestock.
Ranchers demonized wolves, viewing them as a bigger threat than other
predators. The way wolves kill didn’t help their cause: Solitary lions
pounce and kill quickly, but wolf packs run down their prey and
practically eat cows alive.
So began a six-decade, federally sponsored crusade that was “almost as
great as that devoted to neutralizing the Apaches,” Brown writes.
Wolves were shot on sight by ranchers, who could then claim a bounty up to
$50 as late as 1960, plus some cash for the pelt. Livestock carcasses were
laced with strychnine, cyanide, other poisons. In spring, when pups were
born, hunters would engage in “denning,” digging out litters and
dispatching them with bullets or “numbing clubs.”
Even ecologist Aldo Leopold, idol of many modern environmentalists, took
part in the slaughter as a young ranger, though he would later regret it.
In his 1949 “Sand County Almanac,” Leopold recalls how his party spotted a
wolf and her pups near Eastern Arizona’s Escudilla Mountain, shot them at
once and reached the mother in time “to watch a fierce green fire dying in
“I was young then, and full of trigger-itch,” he wrote. “I thought that
because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’
paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the
wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
By 1925, after more than 900 wolves were killed in a decade Brown likens
to the Nazi “final solution,” the wolf was mostly a memory in the American
Southwest. But it held on in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and for the next
quarter century predator-control agents would act like the Border Patrol
and prevent lobos from coming north.
A decade after the wolf was listed as endangered in 1967, Fish and
Wildlife sent a hunter to Durango and Chihuahua to find wolves for captive
breeding. Five wolves were caught and sent to the Arizona-Sonora Desert
Museum. There are now 260 wolves in 45 facilities in North America.
At the Desert Museum earlier this month, curator Pilar Rinky tossed balls
of horse meat to two aging, cowering wolves.
“The wolves are actually quite shy. People think they’re aggressive, but
they’d rather not be near people,” she said.
“What’s its predator?” asked some second-graders visiting from Lineweaver
“Man,” Rinky replied.
Children are still taught that wolves are deceitful and murderous in the
tales of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. But people’s
image of wolves went through an extreme makeover in the 20th century, and
the creatures were lionized in Kevin Costner’s 1990 film “Dances With
Still, when President Bush’s campaign needed to pick a symbol of
terrorists for a commercial, it chose wolves in a dark forest. Phoenix
activist Bobbie Holaday said she wanted to beat Andrea Mitchell on the
head when the NBC correspondent described the ad as effective.
“It just encourages those yahoos up there to go get their guns and kill
‘terrorists,’ ” said Holaday, who recounts her 11-year struggle to start
the reintroduction in “The Return of the Mexican Gray Wolf.”
Authorities continue to investigate the shootings, but won’t describe
suspects or what evidence they’ve found.
When wolves are found shot to death, authorities turn the area into a
crime scene, collect evidence and ship the remains to Oregon for forensic
“Wildlife poaching, in general, are very hard crimes to solve,” said Doug
McKenna, a Fish and Wildlife agent in Mesa.
“You’re dealing with a gunshot, maybe vehicle tracks and not much beyond
that,” said Jon Cooley, head of Game and Fish’s Pinetop office.
Fish and Wildlife and environmentalists have put up a $45,000 reward for
turning in a wolf killer. There’s also an emphasis on educating hunters
since shootings tend to increase in hunting season and some of the dead
wolves are thought to have been mistaken for coyotes.
Shooting in self-defense is OK
It’s legal for someone to shoot a wolf in self-defense, and it’s always OK
to scare them off.
There have been no fatal attacks by wild wolves in North America in the
It’s illegal to harm a wolf attacking a pet, and ranchers can kill wolves
preying on livestock only on private and tribal property – not federal
Gauging how often wolves kill livestock is tough because remains may never
be found and wolves sometimes scavenge. Since 1998, the wolf program has
documented 47 confirmed instances of predation and 22 possible and
probable cases. That’s more than triple the rate in the Northern Rockies -
where grazing isn’t year-round – but in line with government projections.
Elk make up 74 percent of wolves’ diet and livestock account for 4
percent, according to analysis of wolf droppings.
Ranchers who lose livestock to wolves are eligible for compensation from
Defenders of Wildlife. Since 1998, the group has paid $34,023 to ranchers
in the Southwest. But they complain it’s difficult to get paid.
More room to roam?
Environmentalists – and even some ranchers – think the conflict could be
eased if wolves weren’t so concentrated.
Federal officials raised concerns about their boundary rule as early as
1999, and independent scientists’ three-year review of the program also
said recaptures were inhibiting recovery.
Capture-related stress is blamed for only one of the 45 wolf deaths
documented by Fish and Wildlife. But Michael Robinson of the Center for
Biological Diversity believes trapping and relocation has actually killed
around 10 animals.
Highly social wolves struggle to survive if their packs are broken up, he
said. And public records released to Robinson show that when three pups
died of a virus after being captured in 1999, a veterinarian blamed their
deaths on “stress from the whole trapping affair.”
The boundary rule was a concession to wolf opponents, but next year, when
a new recovery plan is drafted, Fish and Wildlife may change the policy.
Wolves naturally disperse to open habitat and have already made it to near
Flagstaff, but it’s unclear if they could reach the area around Tucson or
north of the Grand Canyon without some help. Any expansion of the
Southwest program is also tied to ongoing litigation over Fish and
Wildlife’s desire to loosen Endangered Species Act protection for other
subspecies of wolf.
In the meantime, wolf supporters hope to get ranchers to change husbandry
practices and remove livestock carcasses that attract wolves. As a model,
they point to Will and Jan Holder’s operation on Eagle Creek, northwest of
Will’s grandfather used to kill wolves along the Mogollon Rim, and he grew
up with plenty of horror stories about them.
“It was bogeyman kind of stuff,” he said. “You never saw it as a little
kid, but you were fearful.”
He and Jan met while working in advertising for America West in Phoenix,
and when they moved back to Will’s family ranch they decided to produce
“We used to ranch like pretty much everyone else and just throw our cattle
out there,” he said.
Now the Holders keep a close eye on their cows and make them herd so
they’re a more formidable opponent for predators.
While their product is double the price of other beef, finding customers
hasn’t been a problem. But persuading other ranchers to follow their lead
or accept their pro-wolf stance has been nearly impossible.
“It’s been abject hatred,” Holder said. “We’ve been real fearful of people
doing harm to us or burning down our house.”