Alex Devoid, The Republic
Todd Swinney was tending cattle in the high country near Eagar last spring when he spotted them, a pack of Mexican gray wolves known as the Diamond Pack.
He had been walking for hours in the cold through a pine forest, straining to see through the thickets of trees. He breathed in the smell of soggy pine needles as wind gusts nipped at his face.
The wolves stood and stared at him. They seemed to be stirring from a nap, as Swinney remembers it. The animals had let Swinney get close, within about 40 feet, closer than he cared to be.
Sometimes he could scare wolves away on Call, the horse he named after Captain Woodrow Call, the retired Texas Ranger and fellow cattleman from “Lonesome Dove.” But this time he was on foot.
He jumped up and down, hollered and waved. They weren’t scared. They didn’t understand how dangerous he could be.
Cattlemen and wolves have been at odds for decades, almost from the time they began to share the land. Settlers to the West nearly drove Mexican gray wolves extinct in government-sponsored eradication campaigns intended to benefit livestock herds.
Even now that the wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the old conflict weighs on their fitful recovery.
Authorities may still kill them or remove them from the wild under the law if they prey on livestock because the wolves are deemed a “nonessential experimental population.” Illegal shootings happen every year and those human-caused deaths contribute to wolf advocates’ fear that Mexican gray wolves may never recover.
Cattle guardian, wolf savior
In the woods that day, Swinney lifted his shotgun, a 12-gauge “beater-upper.”
Researchers from several universities estimated in 2006 that cattle only make up a small fraction of Mexican gray wolves’ diet, but Swinney couldn’t have these wolves near the herd.
Luckily for the Diamond pack, he wasn’t out to kill.
Swinney believes cattleman and wolves can coexist. He uses ranching techniques to reduce conflicts between livestock and wolves, countering two competing undercurrents that wolves are bad for cattle and cattle are bad for wolves.
Swinneymonitors wolves with the help of federal and state authorities, while strategizing with wolf advocates to steer them away from cattle.
His role is both the cattle’s guardian and the wolves’ savior, working under a partnership with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. It’s one of a growing number of partnerships in the organization’s coexistence program.
Coexistence programs propose to solve a tug of war that has complicated efforts to recover the Mexican gray wolf population and remove it from the endangered species list.
Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a long-awaited revised recovery plan that walked a tightrope between many interests.
It considers human-caused deaths a leading threat to Mexican gray wolves. Many of these deaths stem from conflicts between wolves and livestock.
The recovery plan compels states and tribes in the U.S. to implement “regulatory mechanisms” to reduce the number of wolf deaths caused by humans. And it calls on Mexico to do the same.
The plan would delist the wolf when its population in the wild averages 320 in the U.S. and 200 in Mexico when counted over eight years. At least 114 Mexican gray wolves roamed parts of Arizona and New Mexico in 2017, while Mexico had about 31. The U.S. population had grown slightly in recent years, but fewer pups survived in 2017, leaving the overall count almost unchanged from 2016.
A key element of the plan is releasing captive wolves from a binational breeding program into the wild to diversify this species’ genetic makeup. Authorities may also translocate wild wolves to other designated corners of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico to disperse genetic diversity.
After these wolves are moved or released, the plan requires 22 in the U.S. and 36 in Mexico to survive until breeding age or for a year, depending on their age.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may also capture wolves from the wild to place in captivity, according to the recovery plan. Many of these removals from the wild are due to conflicts with cattle andthey chip away at population numbers just like deaths.
Environmentalists say the plan imperils the wolves, while many cattlemen say it allows too many.
Environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the plan falls dangerously short of safe population numbers and fails to protect wolves from inbreeding and illegal killings.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced legislation that would effectively circumvent the plan by lowering the population numbers needed to remove the wolf from the endangered species list.
While politics and lawsuits play out, those who believe in coexistence see it as a way forward on the ground.
With the wolves so close to Swinney that cold day, he loaded rubber buckshot into his shotgun’s chamber. It was a less than lethal way to drive the wolves away, a method the Arizona Game and Fish Department had trained him to use.
For a moment, Swinney was afraid to shoot the wolves.
“It’s a large predator and I know these animals are supposed to move away from me,” he said. “But what if I piss ’em off when I shoot ’em with this stuff.”
Rubber buckshot is one of the strategies he uses to coexist with Mexican gray wolves. He switches strategies often and assesses which ones work best from year to year, he said
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said.
Human presence helps by just being out with the cattle.
Swinney tracks wolf movements with telemetry equipment, tapping into the radio collars authorities attached to many wolves. He has an arrangement with the state wildlife agency to keep tabs on these wolves.
He keeps their locations close to his vest, mindful of what poachers could do with the data.
Additionally, he picks cows for the herd that have been able to stand their ground against domestic dogs, so if a wolf attacks they might not flee and abandon their calves.
“I want these cows to know that they can beat them dogs if they have to,” Swinney said.
He also doesn’t let them scatter off because he wants them to help each other chase away a wolf if one approaches. A lonely cow makes for easier prey.
A fellow cattleman told Swinney he saw a group of three or four cows run off a pack of wolves by Crosby Crossing, south of Eagar.
Sharing experiences and strategies like these among cattlemen is an important element to coexisting with wolves, if each party is willing to listen, Swinney said.
Swinney visited Montana to learn about management strategies cattleman use there to avoid bear and wolf attacks on cattle.
Defenders of Wildlife, the conservation organization, helps pay Swinney to protect the cattle from conflicts with wolves at the ranch he works for. And the organization has written a guide on how livestock producers can coexist with wolves.
The group suggests clearing out cow carcasses that could attract wolves, building fences, using guardian dogs and an array of scare tactics, among other methods to keep wolves a safe distance away.
Coexistence methods can make a difference, said Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
But grazing is an inherent problem in wolf habitat, he said. The federal government could improve it on public land by placing more regulations on public-land grazers to protect native flora and fauna.
Robinson points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has called grazing a privilege, not a right.
Although, the law specifies that grazing privileges “shall be adequately safeguarded,” according to court documents.
Many cattleman feel coexistence isn’t the solution it’s cracked up to be and that wolf advocates aim to banish cattle grazers from public land.
“There is no such thing as coexistence between an apex predator and domestic animals,” said Woody Cline, the president of the Gila County Cattle Growers Association.
Cattleman can receive compensation for cows preyed upon by wolves through a couple of avenues. The federal Livestock Indemnity Program, for example, pays 75 percent of market value.
When Laura Schneberger lost several calves in 2003, the compensation didn’t make her whole, she said. She is the president of the Gila National Forest Permittees Association and grazes cattle in New Mexico amid high elevations and rough terrain.
For those who don’t raise livestock, it’s hard to understand the value of a cow beyond its market value, like the time and sweat it takes to raise that animal, Swinney said. Losing one cow can also affect overall livestock production.
Schneberger lost more cattle to wolves last summer, she said, but it’s a cumbersome process to file for compensation and she is still gathering the necessary paperwork.
Many methods to coexist, or scare wolves away, don’t have a lasting affect, she said.
“To pretend that that’s the solution and we’re all doing it wrong, that’s basically just discrediting ranching,” she said.
Her husband shot a Mexican gray wolf as it attacked their cattle in 2013.
They received numerous death threats after that, she said, although investigators ruled it a legal shooting.
Conflict off the range
Schneberger oversees a Facebook group called “wolves, cattle, and the people who live between them,” where members share photos of livestock eaten by wolves, among other images.
Schneberger shared one of a protester with a sign that read, “cows on the Gila are a (failed) experiment.”
Most wolf advocates want to rid public lands of ranching, she said, “but I’m not going anywhere. My grandparents are buried in this place. This is where we make our living.”
Mexican gray wolves are “under grave threat,” not the livestock industry, Robinson said. Many ranchers refuse to coexist with wolves.
He is a well-known wolf advocate, who one commenter in Schenberger’s Facebook group mocked in his absence.
Arguments over coexistence and wolf recovery are found in other corners of social media too. While far more Facebook pages are dedicated to wolf recovery, the page “Wolf Hunters of the World Unite” has over 800 likes and tugs at the lowest common denominator on both sides of the wolf debate.
Pro-wolf and anti-wolf commenters trade insults that highlight a cultural divide between rural and urban communities.
The page is passionately against Mexican gray wolf recovery in Arizona and New Mexico as well as recovery of other wolves in Idaho, where Defenders of Wildlife has also promoted coexistence.
The page touts photos of many dead wolves. Among them is one of a mangled pup and another of a bloodied wolf in the snow wearing a radio collar.
One meme says, “‘Defenders of Wildlife’ makes me want to … VOMIT!” and another shows a photo of a wolf skin rug, with the words, “The only way to ‘coexist with wolves.'”
Benefits to the ecosystem
Craig Miller works with Defenders to promote coexistence and watches the arguments build from both sides. Fellow conservationists have called him a “grazing apologist” for his work.
In his world, relationships are a currency. He guards them as he builds more. And he hesitates to make public the ranchers who work with Defenders of Wildlife.
A path forward to restore “vibrancy and the fertility and the productivity of nature” lies in resolving differences over wolves, he said. It’s important to humans’ own ability to survive.
Wolf advocates often praise a cascade of benefits the reintroduction of wolves had on the ecosystem at Yellowstone National Park.
While Swinney hopes wolves will similarly benefit Arizona’s ecosystem, he believes the measures he takes to coexist with wolves have kept more cows alive. That’s the ranch’s bottom line.
A difficult year for the Diamond Pack
On that cold day in the pines, Swinney fired his shotgun into the branches of a big pine tree above the Diamond Pack. It got their attention. They knew he was serious.
As they trotted away he fired another shot behind them. “I doubt that I hit ’em with that rubber buckshot.”
These wolves didn’t have older animals around anymore to model appropriate fear of humans, Swinney said. Most wolves he’s seen distance themselves from him.
“It’s kinda like leaving a bunch of 16-year-olds without adult supervision,” he said. “They’re gonna get into trouble.”
Finding a way for humans and wolves to share the landscape will never be easy.
Wildlife managers wanted to remove wolves to disrupt the Diamond Pack from preying on cows. But Miller said removing wolves from the wild can throw off pack social dynamics and worsen conflicts with cattle.
In 2017, the pack had a hard time staying together.
After a series of cows fell prey to wolves, authorities captured an adult male and a younger male from the pack in January. They began an investigation into a young female wolf’s death in May. And after more cattle fell prey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services killed an additional adult female in August.
As of January this year, the Diamond Pack had disbanded for three months and authorities consider them single wolves.
Proximity to livestock is dangerous for Mexican gray wolves, wrote wolf advocates, including Defenders and the Center for Biological Diversity, in the lawsuit they brought against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It can lead to death at the hands of humans, they said, which greatly threatens these wolves’ survival.
Cline, the head of the cattle growers association, agrees with that assessment, but wouldn’t mind seeing these wolves buried in the past with the dinosaurs.
“They are not doing the Mexican gray wolf any favors by putting him out there in the middle of people,” he said.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in the Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow the azcentral and Arizona Republic environmental reporting team at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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