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AZ: Endangered wolves face uphill battle after Wallow Fire

By: Brien McElhatten

SHOW LOW, AZ – One of Arizona’s most endangered species is struggling to gain a foothold in spite of extermination campaigns, wildfires and a difficult conflict with ranchers.

Fewer than 60 Mexican gray wolves exist in Arizona’s White Mountains which lie along the border with New Mexico.

The elusive creatures are unlikely to be seen by tourists, but you can see them at the Phoenix Zoo .

The wolves live in and around and area known as the Blue Range Recovery Area.

That was ground zero for the Wallow Fire. The largest wild land blaze in Arizona history scorched more than 500,000 acres.

It swept through Blue Range and right over the wolves’ dens.

While residents in towns like Springerville and Eagar were busy evacuating and worrying about their homes, personnel with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish were concerned how the fire would impact the critically endangered wolves.

“We were concerned,” said Chris Bagnoli, a wildlife officer who has been working with the wolves since they were first reintroduced into the surrounding mountains in 1998.

“We didn’t know what the impact would be. The pups depend on the other adults in the pack for food, warmth and for protection,” he said.

During the fire, Bagnoli housed co-workers at his home and journeyed behind the fire lines to observe the wolves.

Since many of the animals wear collars equipped with radio or satellite transmitters, Bagnoli’s team was able to track the wolves without visually observing them.

“What we found was that the adults were taking the pups out of the dens and moving them to safer locations,” he said.

That was good news, as the future of the Mexican gray wolf rests with the pups.

Wildlife officials and wolf advocates were biting their nails as the thick smoke and flames ate away at the wolves’ environment.

While the news seems to be good, there is some concern.

“So far, we haven’t seen any of the pups from the Rim Pack,” said Bagnoli.

“It’s possible they perished in the fire, but we’ll never know for sure,” he said.

The fire, as it turns out was a threat, but perhaps not the biggest one to face the species.

The wolves have fought back from near extinction after being reintroduced in the White Mountains in 1998.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries when westward settlers began arriving, the wolves were seemingly everywhere.

Their haunting howls could be heard echoing in the night. Their efficient hunting skills became evident when cattle ranching became prominent in the region.

Cattle growers sought out the gray wolf like a monster in the night, killing scores of them after scores of cattle, the rancher’s very livelihood, were killed and eaten by the packs.

Some hunters came from the east coast to make their mark.

Now a renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold was then a rising star with the US Forest Service and an author. Leopold wrote of an encounter with a mother wolf and her pups in his 1948 book A Sand Canyon Almanac:

“In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy, he wrote. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. 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.”

Many ranchers did agree with that view. Concerned for their way of life, they shot wolves on sight.

The species declined in America until it was virtually wiped out in the 1940s.

The few surviving wolves could only be found in Mexico. That’s when five wolves were trapped in that country in the late 1970s.

While two of those initial wolves died in captivity, a breeding program was successful and 11 captive wolves were released into the Apache National Forest in 1998.

Since then, the numbers have increased to nearly 60.

They are split into four packs.

The Rim Pack, The Hawksnest Pack, the Bluestem Pack and the Moonshine pack roam eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

Their recovery however, has been anything but easy.

In the years between 1998 and 2009, 31 Mexican gray wolves were illegally killed by poachers.

Many had an ax to grind with the powerful predator. Some were mistaken for coyotes.

In 2010, another two wolves — both alpha males — were found shot to death.

Protected under federal law, the only time and individual may kill a Mexican gray wolf is if it is observed killing livestock.

Observing a pasture or stalking livestock is not a legally excusable reason to kill the animal.

If a wolf is killed, either intentionally or accidently, the death must be reported to authorities within 24 hours.

The rules often rub ranchers the wrong way.

Carey Dobson is a fourth generation rancher living near the Blue Range Recovery Area.

He’s seen the effects of the wolves firsthand.

“I had 16 or 17 sheep killed each year,” he said, as his stern facial features were blocked

from the sun by his black cowboy hat.

“We once had a beautiful stud colt,” he continued. “I came out to the barn one morning to find its back leg had been chewed off.”

Dobson says when he called wildlife authorities, they told him there were no wolves in the area.

He soon learned differently.

In the 21st century, ranchers are once again having the same problems earlier generations faced in the 19th century.

Although livestock killings are not nearly as common as they once were, a single cow killed by a wolf can set a rancher back nearly $200.

When that number is multiplied, the cost can become overwhelming. After all, most ranchers already operate within thin financial margins.

Other ranchers who wish to remain unidentified spoke with ABC15 and say they don’t understand why the wolf has to be reintroduced in the first place.

Bagnoli offers a reason.

“The wolf as an apex predator has a distinct role in the ecosystem system,” he explained. “They’re part of the natural balance and order of the wild.”

He went on to explain that the wolves hunt grass eating animals like deer.

When there are too many deer, the grass is eaten up which leads to increased soil erosion and destroys habitat for other creatures.

That doesn’t comfort the ranchers but because the wolves are protected under federal law, there isn’t much the cattle growers can do.

Some, like Carey Dobson, are working with Arizona Game and Fish and other wildlife groups to reach a compromise of sorts.

Wildlife officials track the wolves with radio collars and report pack positions to the ranchers.

That gives ranchers an option to force their livestock to alternate grazing grounds in order to avoid run-ins with hungry wolves.

Low-tech options also work. Dobson has affixed orange streamers to an electric fence.

The wolves recognize the orange streamers represent an electric shock and avoid the fence line.

The methodology sometimes seems strange to Dobson, he admits.

“My great grandfather ranched this land when the wolves were prevalent,” he said. “He’d probably roll in his grave if he saw what we were doing now.”

Indeed protecting the wolf from the hands of humans will take a cultural change in this part of the country where ranching goes back many generations, as does hatred for the wolf.

The first step may be the removal of the Mexican gray wolf from the federal endangered species list.

A movement is afoot in Washington to do just that.

Removal from the list would cede control of the recovery program-and the wolves’ protection-to state agencies like Arizona Game and Fish.

That would clear the way for different wolf management rules and possibly make it easier for ranchers and others to shoot the animals.

Conservationists like Defenders of Wildlife are opposed to such a move saying it poses a threat to an already critically endangered species.

You can read more about the debate on the Hear Me Out section of our website.

Whatever the answer is, the wolf recovery program is here to stay and stakeholders say they must work together to protect their respective interests.

After all, one of the biggest threats facing the wolf isn’t wildfire or disease, it’s the human hand.

Between the rules and regulations, honest hands are bound.

“This has completely changed the way we ranch,” explained Dobson. “But we’re still making money and we’re still in business. That’s what matters.”