Return Of The Big, Bad Wolf

The Wolf Is Back In The Wild West, And Ranchers Want Him Banished. After Eight Years Of A Failing Federal Program To Reintroduce The Endangered Mexican Gray Wolf, Ranchers Might Get Their Wish.

Kate Trainor
18 min read
Over the last eight years, 28 wolves have died at the hands of the federal government.
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The legend of the big, bad wolf is alive in the Southwest. In the remote wilderness of the Gila and Apache national forests, the wolf is still making mischief, raiding calving sheds and chicken coops, and lurking in wait for tasty, tender-limbed little girls. But in this version of the classic tale, it’s not Little Red Riding Hood that’s in peril. It’s the wolf.

The Mexican wolf reintroduction program in the Southwest has been plagued by political controversy and a faltering population since it began in 1998. The program’s record is blighted by damning data: Over the last eight years, 28 wolves have died at the hands of the federal government. Eight of the wolves were shot by federal agents for posing a threat to livestock,
while the others died as a result of capture.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) maintains that the reintroduction program has been successful, despite dismal statistics. The Mexican wolf population has declined by 20 percent each year for the past two years, from 55 at the end of 2003, to 44 at the end of 2004, and to 35 at the end of 2005. Fewer than that many wolves exist in the recovery area today, with the latest published count by the FWS tallying a mere 25 wolves.

The details behind the data are equally disheartening. In one instance, wolf pups died after being separated from their mother and eaten by an appointed surrogate. One wolf collapsed after being chased for 20 miles by a government airplane, in a failed attempt to recapture the animal. Still others died after being released in unfamiliar territory, separated from their packs, or as a result of trauma or injuries sustained during recapture.

A Forbidding Start

Wolf reintroduction programs elsewhere in the United States, such as in the Great Lakes region and the Rocky Mountains, have been largely successful. By comparison, the results of the reintroduction in the Southwest have proved disappointing, at best. Many conservationists contend that the program was flawed from the start. “The first sign that things were going awry was in 1998, when five out of the first 11 wolves were found with bullets in them,” says Michael Robinson, carnivore conservation coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The first wolf pup born in the wild in seven decades was assumed dead after both of its parents were shot. The other wolves were captured for their own protection and brought back into captivity. Just as we had before, we had no wolves on the ground in the Southwest.”

Less than 100 years ago, Mexican wolves roamed freely throughout the southwestern United States and much of Mexico. Today, they are the most endangered large mammals in the U.S. The designated wolf recovery area, known as the Blue Range, stretches from west-central New Mexico to east-central Arizona, spanning regions of the Gila and Apache National Forests. The area was later expanded to include the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, after tribal leaders requested special permission to make it part of the recovery zone.

Outside of the reservation, the Blue Range consists of public, federally funded land. Like other public lands in the West, regions of these national forests are used for private industry by cattle ranchers. Within the Blue Range, wolves are scarce, but ranches—and grazing livestock—are conspicuous.

The Clash with Cattle

Overwhelmingly, the ranchers who live in the recovery area oppose wolf reintroduction. Wolves, as predators, pose a palpable threat to livestock—and, thus, to ranchers’ livelihoods. Loretta and William Rabenau are ranchers in the Blue Range recovery area in New Mexico, and, like many of their neighbors, the Rabenaus have suffered the repercussions of wolf reintroduction. Although the Rabenaus haven’t ever seen a wolf, they’ve witnessed the aftermath of wolf attacks on their livestock. In less than three months, wolves killed more than 20 of the Rabenaus’ cattle. Mrs. Rabenau reported that several of her cows died after wolves ate their udders, and, in one attack, an unborn calf from a cow’s womb. “It was then I realized what kind of creature we were dealing with,” she says.

Following an investigation by the FWS, the Rabenaus were compensated for their loss. However, Mrs. Rabenau contends that the compensation covered only half of the damages, and did not account for the hours she and her husband spent collecting carcasses, patrolling for wolves, protecting cattle and fretting over further depredation. The experience, says Mrs. Rabenau, was distressing not only financially, but emotionally. “The cows are more than just your livelihood,” she says. “You care for these animals. You get attached.”

Federal Sympathies

eyond its obligation to the wolf, the FWS has made a dogged effort to appease affected ranchers. Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, the most recently appointed Southwest regional director of the recovery program, is generally well-liked by Blue Range ranchers. “Dr. Tuggle is the first one to listen to us,” says Mrs. Rabenau.

Many ranchers see Tuggle as a friend, though conservationists are wary of favoritism. “People think I’m probably a little closer to the ranching community than I ought to be,” says Tuggle. “And that’s not the case. For me, that’s being a good public servant.”

Although Tuggle is more popular than his predecessors, he still struggles to reconcile his commitment to wolf recovery with the demands of ranchers. “There are a number of people who believe that wolves don’t belong on the landscape,” he says. “There are also a number of people who believe that ranching doesn’t belong on the landscape.” The allegiance of the FWS, says Tuggle, is “squarely in the middle.” The agency’s mission, he says, “is not so much to satisfy one or the other,” but “to create a balance in the favor of the wolf.”

Amidst criticism that the program is biased in favor of ranching, Tuggle says, “I don’t think that we can really say that we’re trying to please the ranchers any more than we’re trying to please the forest service, or the environmental groups, or anybody else.”

Tuggle denies showing favoritism, but doesn’t shy away from expressing sympathy for the ranchers. “If I have to do something that I think is going to help ranching, which I believe we should—we’re not trying to run anybody off the landscape—then I’m going to do that,” he says. “On the other side, if I have to do something that’s going to be difficult for anti-wolf people to swallow, then I’m going to do that.”

Pressures from both sides of the debate have impacted the reintroduction, but, says Tuggle, “we have to give the wolves an opportunity to get rid of the politics, and let wolves do what wolves do.” Ideally, he says, “ranchers ought to be able to ranch, and wolves ought to be able to be wolves, independent of the politics.”

Playing Politics

Presently, politics are an undeniable factor affecting wolf reintroduction in the Blue Range, and the conditions for recovery are far from ideal. Robinson explains that reintroduction in the Southwest has been subject to a handful of “bizarre” regulations not imposed in programs elsewhere, or on any other endangered species. The most damaging of the protocol, he says, is the rule that forbids wolves to leave the limited boundaries of the recovery area. Under present regulations, wolves must remain within arbitrary political boundaries imposed by the FWS. If a wolf crosses the boundary of the Blue Range (not an unusual occurrence), it must be captured, transported and returned to the recovery zone. Biologists and conservationists are especially critical of this measure, noting that the trauma of capture, combined with separation from the pack, can cause a creature severe distress.

Robinson estimates that more than 30 wolves have died as a direct result of capture by the FWS. Twenty of those deaths have been confirmed. Even wolves that remain in the recovery area can be trapped and removed from the wild, as was the case with two packs that had scavenged on livestock carcasses and, subsequently, began killing cattle. Numerous wolf pups have died due to the stress of recapture, or following the recapture of their parents. One alpha female suffered frostbite on her leg after being trapped and left in freezing conditions overnight. “They had to chop off her leg to save her life,” said Robinson.

Roadblocks to Recovery

Another critical barrier to Mexican wolf recovery is what Robinson refers to as one of several “poison pill provisions” set by the FWS. Ranchers within the Blue Range are not required to remove cattle carcasses, thereby inviting wolves to indulge in an easy meal. Conservationists contend that such conditions encourage habituation; once a wolf has a taste for cattle, they’re inclined to crave more. Ranchers argue that removing dead cattle would be an impossible task, given the expansive range of their livestock.

Yet it is equally impossible for a wolf to avoid livestock in the Blue Range. Within the limited bounds of the recovery zone, says Mrs. Rabenau, “a wolf can’t walk a dozen miles in any direction without encountering a ranch.” Grazing livestock are scattered throughout the area, and, if grass is scarce (as it is during drought), cattle can displace elk, javelina, deer and other wild prey. Under these circumstances, cattle are a wolf’s first choice for fast food. Wolves that prey on livestock or prowl nearby ranches are labeled “nuisance wolves,” or “problem wolves,” and are thus subject to probable recapture and translocation by the FWS.

Regulations governing how and where wolves can be released further complicate wolf reintroduction in the Blue Range. Whereas wolves bred in captivity may be released in Arizona, only recaptured, wild-born wolves may be released in New Mexico. Most of the wolves that exist in the Blue Range are captive bred, and given their scant population, wild-born wolves are a rarity. The reason for these rules, explains Robinson, “is simply because, when these decisions were being made, the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association had less political clout than the New Mexico Association.” Robinson notes that the recovery area in Arizona, which is about half the size of the recovery area in New Mexico, consistently has more wolves than New Mexico, evidence that the translocated, wild-born wolves haven’t fared well.

When, in 1999, former Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator David Parsons attempted to enact rules that allowed for the direct release of wolves into New Mexico, he was fired by the FWS. In a statement issued on Dec. 12, 2006, Parsons alleged that “anti-wolf politics have been controlling agency decisions and actions to the detriment of wolf recovery.” Parsons issued the statement in accompaniment to the latest lawsuit filed against the FWS over Mexican wolf reintroduction. The lawsuit contends, among other charges, that the FWS has “failed to implement a science panel proposal to save [the] faltering … program.”

A Long, Sordid History

In the American West, anti-predator politics precede the wolf reintroduction program by more than a century. The legend of the wolf as a miscreant predator is enduring, as is the animal’s sordid history with the FWS.

Established in 1885 as a scientific research organization, the FWS was quickly recast as a predator control agency, serving the interests of the agriculture industry. By the late ’20s, the FWS had succeeded in killing most of the wolves in the U.S. by a variety of means, including poison, trapping and shooting, often exterminating entire dens. In his book,
Predatory Bureaucracy, Robinson explains that agents hired by the FWS were awarded an assigned number of points for killing a wolf, which influenced their pay and promotion.

In 1928, in response to scientific criticism, the FWS pledged to never exterminate a species. Despite its promise, Robinson reports, the FWS continued its campaign to exterminate wolves by liberally distributing poison, produced in Albuquerque, throughout rural America.

In 1945, the FWS shot the last wolf in the contiguous U.S., near the Colorado-New Mexico border. To prevent what the FWS called a “re-infestation” of wolves in the U.S., the agency implemented a wolf extermination program in Mexico, where many American ranchers leased land at little expense. Riflemen were posted on the international border, with orders to shoot predators on sight. Ultimately, the FWS succeeded in its extermination campaign, causing the near-extinction of wolves, grizzly bears, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and California condors.

Having banished the wolf from the West, the FWS is now charged with what seems a twisted penance: to bring the wolf, among other creatures now endangered, back from the near-dead.

Modern Management Tactics: Feds Going Too Far?

Today, the circumstances under which the FWS—or a rancher—can kill a wolf within the recovery area are limited. Under the FWS regulation known as “S.O.P. 13,” or, to Robinson, “the bad luck protocol,” it is legal to kill a wolf after three livestock depredations, or if a wolf threatens to attack a human. Within most of the recovery area, the wolves are classified as a “non-essential, experimental population,” a distinction that strips them of the protections to which they are entitled as an endangered species. This “experimental” classification allows the FWS more legal latitude to “manage” wolves, and gives ranchers more leverage in protecting cattle. Even with these protections, conservationists claim that so-called wolf “management” by the FWS has been excessive. Conversely, most ranchers argue that more management by the government is necessary to keep wolves from interfering with the livestock industry.

How real a threat are wolves to livestock? A peer-reviewed study of Mexican wolf scats in the Blue Range revealed that only 4.2 percent of the wolves’ diet was composed of cattle, some of which were probably carcasses that were scavenged. The study found that wolves relied on elk and other large prey (like deer) for the majority of their diet.

The Plan to Please Ranchers

Since the reintroduction began, the FWS has tried, unsuccessfully, to mitigate objections by ranchers who claim the wolf doesn’t belong in the wild–at least, not within range of a ranch. During the 2006 Cattle Growers’ Convention, held in Albuquerque this past November, Tuggle presented ranchers with a proposed compromise to their complaints about wolf depredation and habituation. Tuggle’s so-called “interdiction plan” proposes to “further the efforts of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program” while also “providing ranchers with strategies for managing interactions between wolves and livestock.” Tuggle presented the interdiction plan not as a definite solution, but as a “concept” for ranchers to consider.

The plan would entail the development of an endowed fund for wolf management, to which cattle ranchers, state governments and other sources would contribute. Participating cattle ranchers would be compensated for wolf depredations using interest earned on the fund, with a management group, composed partly of ranchers, determining the amount of compensation. The FWS doesn’t offer compensation for losses caused by any other predator, though it has consistently reimbursed ranchers for wolf-related losses.

The ranchers who live in the wolf recovery area represent a small constituent of the U.S. livestock industry, and therefore have only a nominal economic impact, overall. Within the region, however, wolf depredation of livestock poses a serious threat to the economic welfare of individual ranchers and their families. Tuggle estimates the economic impact of wolves on ranchers in the Blue Range was between $38,650 to $206,290 between 1998 and 2004.

Tuggle’s interdiction plan also recommends taking measures to protect livestock from wolves, including the use of guard dogs, range riders, calving sheds and predator-proof fences. However, ranchers remain unconvinced that any of these so-called protections will stop wolf depredation.

Tuggle sells his interdiction plan as an opportunity for ranchers to establish a co-operative, community-supported solution to the economic fallout of wolf reintroduction. Regardless, Tuggle’s plan is a tough sell, and most of the ranchers don’t buy it. One rancher quoted Khrushchev, likening an investment in the interdiction plan to buying the rope with which the FWS would hang them. Following Tuggle’s presentation, a unanimous grumble arose from the ranchers: “It’s not gonna work,” they said.

Mounting Fear over Public Safety

Ranchers are also troubled by the threat wolves pose to their physical safety. Although the forests in which they live are inhabited by myriad untamed dangers, such as rattlesnakes, bears and javelina, their foremost concern is a prospective attack by a wolf on a human.

“Somebody’s going to be hurt soon,” said Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Grower’s Association. Schneberger recounted a recent incident in which her 14-year-old daughter encountered two wolves while riding her horse through the Gila, nearby the family’s ranch. “Fortunately,” said Schneberger, “she had her .22 with her. But that would’ve been worthless against two wolves.” The wolves didn’t attack, and neither Schneberger’s daughter nor the wolves were harmed in the incident.

Other ranchers described similar accounts of hazing by wolves, one involving a teenage boy at a hunting camp, and another a woman taking a “pit stop” in the woods. Echoing Schneberger’s concerns, one rancher said she feared for her young son’s safety. “You can replace a steer, but you can’t replace a child,” she said.

Historically, wolf attacks on humans have been rare. A wolf attack on a human has yet to occur in the Blue Range recovery area, though fear of this prospect is pervasive among ranchers. Despite Tuggle’s reassurance that “public safety is absolutely critical,” the ranchers demanded to know: What will happen if a wolf
does attack a human? “If that happens,” said Tuggle, “we’re shooting him.”

A Distant Recovery

Tuggle also tries to appease ranchers with the prospect of species recovery—which will allow the FWS more authority in managing wolves. Once the Mexican wolf is no longer endangered, the FWS can implement management tactics that may not be legal now while the population is protected by its endangered status. “If wolves are recovered,” Tuggle tells the ranchers, “you won’t be encumbered by the rules of the Endangered Species Act.” With only 25 wolves accounted for, it doesn’t appear that recovery will happen soon.

The FWS has offered only a vague definition of what recovery will require. Initially, the program aimed to reintroduce 100 wolves. To the ranchers, it’s 100 wolves too many. To conservationists, 100 wolves aren’t nearly enough to constitute a real recovery. For his part, Tuggle isn’t clinging to a predetermined target, because, he says, he’s “not sold that 100 wolves is the answer.”

During his presentation to the ranchers, Tuggle remarked that wolves “bless the landscape,” but rescinded the comment after it was met by angry backlash. To most ranchers, wolves are not a blessing, but a bothersome curse.

Negotiating a Compromise

Tuggle realizes that his attempts at compromise aren’t going to please everyone—at least, not immediately. “You can’t always knock ’em out with one punch,” he says. Eventually, Tuggle believes he can persuade ranchers to see the merits of his interdiction plan. Meanwhile, Schneberger says dissatisfied ranchers will continue “documenting, complaining and raising hell” until wolf-related disputes are resolved.

At this rate, resolution of the controversies over wolf recovery in the Southwest seems a remote, if even possible, prospect. While the ranchers and the conservationists clash, and Tuggle tries to strike a fitting compromise, the fate of the wolf remains tenuous. Over time, Tuggle is hopeful the recovery will succeed. “I’m a very patient man,” he says. For now, the wolves, the ranchers and the conservationists wait, as in every classic story, for a happy ending.

“The cows are more than just your livelihood,” says Loretta Rabenau. “You care for these animals. You get attached.”

Kate Trainor

Michael Robinson looks out over the Gila landscape in southern New Mexico, an area where the Mexican gray wolf has been reintroduced.

Kate Trainor

In less than three months, wolves killed more than 20 of the Rabenaus’ cattle.

Kate Trainor

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