Wolves can be such fun. Nothing brings people together like wolves. Just announce a wolf hearing in the village of Reserve, and stand back.
Reserve is the seat of Catron County, New Mexico's largest county in land area, though definitely not in population. Catron County's population wouldn't fill the entire seating area behind one of the baskets in the Pit.
Catron County has severe social ills, as I discovered when I operated my law practice there for three years. It is plagued by alcoholism, obesity, domestic abuse, chronic poverty, persistent unemployment and poor schools. Catron County's largest export continues to be its children. High schoolers ready to leave call their home "Cartoon County."
Catron County despises government, except when it comes to subsidies for ranching, money for water systems and the welfare checks that sustain much of the county's population.
Not long ago, Catron County had a murder rate equal on a per capita basis to South Central Los Angeles. You didn't see any mass meetings about that little problem. But, paste notice of a wolf hearing outside the post office, and you can gather a sea of cowboy hats in no time.
The hearings five years ago in the Reserve Community Center went pretty much the same as those reported on in the Albuquerque Journal earlier this month. Many of the same people said the same things. At the point of tears, ranchers recounted the scores of cattle killed by wolves. People who call themselves ranchers, but spend most of their time in cafés and bars talking about ranching, promised revenge against wolf-lovers. Politicians who haven't produced anything meaningful for their constituents in decades pounded their chests and swore to stand up to the federal government and sandal-wearing outsiders.
You could have heard cowboy scientists, cowboy theologians and cowboy clairvoyants predicting the slaughter of children and dogs by bloodthirsty lobos. As one fella told the crowd during the first round of hearings, "It's a true fact" that wolves kill humans. In fact, "every year they snatch 52 babies from their mother's arms in India." How can anyone argue against those facts?
The "true facts" about wolves, however, don't get past the door in these hearings. No incident of a Mexican gray wolf harming a human has ever been verified.
But you can certainly hear in Catron County lots of false reports that fire the rumor mill like lightning striking dry timber. Most incendiary was the report some years ago that a wolf had gone after a woman jogging with her dogs near the Gila Hot Springs. That story exploded across southwestern New Mexico, until the woman in question protested it had never happened.
Doesn't matter. It's still a "true fact" the attack occurred.
Then there's the "true fact" that wolves kill the high number of cattle that ranchers claim at these hearings.
Defenders of Wildlife has long had a program that compensates ranchers at generous rates for any cattle lost to "depredation," meaning wolves mixed a little hamburger into their diet of deer, elk and rabbits. It's easy money, with one catch: The cow must actually have been killed by a wolf. Losing a cow in a million acres of wilderness to a mountain lion, poacher, broken leg, disease, starvation or dehydration doesn't count. That little snag explains why the stories about steak-loving wolves are always impressive at the hearings, where excitement counts more than truth.
Though ranchers have set the anti-wolf agenda for Catron County and other rural areas, ranching makes only a small, perhaps even an insignificant, contribution to New Mexico's overall economic picture. Most of the jobs in Catron County, like the rest of the state, are in the growing service sector. The county's greatest employer is government—schools and highway workers, and the feds at the Forest Service and National Park Service.
You won't find a beef packing plant in Catron County, but you can find enterprises producing New Age health and beauty products and increasingly more artists and retirees. You can also find new bed and breakfasts, outfitters and restaurants catering to the thousands of visitors coming to Catron County to enjoy the beauty of the federally protected Gila Wilderness. Some of those people actually come looking for—gasp!—wolves.
There will probably be more wolf hearings in the future. With no disrespect to the New Mexico Legislature, it's some of the best free entertainment in New Mexico.
So if you hanker for tall tales, manly lingo and a taste of disappearing cowboy culture, check one out. Be sure to press your jeans and wear a cowboy hat. But best leave that UNM Lobos T-shirt at home. And then sneak out at night in hopes of something far better: the hair-raising wolf music that even ranchers will admit is worth hearing at least once in a lifetime.