During “Wolf Awareness Week” you could ride a bicycle through a gigantic balloon of a red and white wolf. If you entered at the back, you emerged through the beast’s fangs, just like the UNM football team taking the field.
Earnest students distributed flyers outside the UNM Student Union Building. Organizers promised to exhibit a live wolf—safely restrained, of course. You could catch film and lecture presentations on the “spirit” of the wolf. You could practice howling any time the spirit moved you.
One reason for the festivities, organizers explained, was to confront the caricature of wolves in modern society.
But “Wolf Awareness Week” itself came close to caricature, a burlesque of ineffectual environmental activism. It was easy money for enviros. They were guaranteed receptive audiences in the liberal heart of the Albuquerque metropolis. It was a happy frolic for anyone who likes the idea of wolves running around Southwestern New Mexico but doesn’t actually live where the wild things are.
Real wolf awareness means facing the fact that reintroduction is not working. After 10 years and 15 million federal dollars—and no telling how many dollars spent by environmental groups—only about 50 wolves roam the Gila National Forest and Arizona borderlands. Wolf hatred has deepened. Steve Pearce, the area’s congressman and perhaps our next U.S. senator, has committed himself to driving wolves out of his district.
By now we’ve learned support for wolves increases the farther away you get from them. Opposition builds as you approach ground zero.
The wolf whoop-dee-doo took place far from the fires of the controversy. Like the nearest free-roaming wild wolf, the nearest den of wolf haters is 220 miles away in Reserve, the Catron County seat. None of the groups pamphleting the UNM campus distributed literature on the streets of that angry village during Wolf Awareness Week. They didn’t need to.
The residents of Catron County are well aware of wolves. They’re walking around scared half the time. A 14-year-old boy reported being backed against a tree by a pack of wolves. Horses and dogs have been killed in front yards. Graphic, although unsubstantiated, accounts of how wolves recently hunted and ate a Canadian man have made their way to local cafés and kitchen tables.
Maybe they’ve just talked themselves into being scared. But the fear is real.
When they’re not thinking about being scared, the people out there are in a raging fury about having wolves forced upon them.
To soften wolves’ impact on cattle operations, ranchers were assured full compensation for losses. Defenders of Wildlife promised market rate for every animal wolves killed. But ranchers complain of stacks of rejected applications for compensation and now sneer at the promises made to them when wolves first reappeared.
Enviros assure ranchers everything will be OK. Their losses aren’t as bad as they think. And, really, there’s no documented case of wolves harming a person in the United States. Ranchers, and their large networks of friends, family and economic partners, don’t buy a word of it.
Rather than spend another dime talking about wolves to easy urban audiences, enviros might try doing something where it counts. They definitely need to try something more substantial than showing wolf movies in Burque.
Turn some wolf activists into shepherds, to start. They can guard livestock and clean up the beef carcasses enviros claim give wolves a hankering for hamburger.
Rather than another media buy, let’s see wolf advocates buy a ranch in Catron County. Prove that ranching and wolves can coexist. Show how a rancher can make enough money to feed his family, pay the mortgage and send kids to college—
Don’t talk about how wolves spur ecotourism. Prove it. Send deskbound office staff to Catron County to run an outfitting business so tourists can comfortably experience wolves. Demonstrate how anyone with gumption can profit from having wolves in the neighborhood.
Or try this: Pay ranchers to accept wolves, sort of a wolf easement. Don’t make ranchers fight red tape to cover their losses. Just figure what it’s worth to have wolves around, then pay ranchers up front to let wolves be. Cold, hard cash certainly carries a lot more credibility than a college kid handing out leaflets.
And if enviros aren’t willing to take their efforts beyond Albuquerque's city limits to the communities on the front lines of the wolf wars, they’ve still got an honorable option left: Turn that show-and-tell wolf loose on UNM campus. Bring some Gila wolves up here. Make “Wolf Awareness Week” a year-round event, and see whether city folks really like wolves or instead prefer the idea of wolves somewhere else far, far away.