Wolves in Arizona
The Return of El Lobo
Southwestern Wolves Make Their Troubled Way Home
By Gregory McNamee
In the early years of this century, agents of the federal and state governments combined in an ambitious campaign to rid Arizona and New Mexico of what was generally regarded as a dangerous pest: the lobo, or Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi. Those agents were remarkably successful. They hunted the wolf to extinction in decades, killing dozens of wolves, even hundreds, every year until the job was done.
In 1998, a new generation of federal and state agents embarked on another campaign: to undo the work of their predecessors by reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf into a portion of its former range. On March 30, 1998, government biologists released 11 gray wolves -- three adult males, three adult females, three female pups and yearlings and two male pups -- from three chain-link acclimation pens within the 7,000-square-mile, federally designated Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in east-central Arizona.
Plenty of visitors came to see the wolves in captivity, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Even so, the release was a quiet event. "We just unlocked the latches, threw open the gates and left," says Dan Groebner, an Arizona Game & Fish Department biologist who had been working on the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction project for the better part of a decade. "The wolves sniffed around the gates for a while, and then off they went."
The lobos, the rarest of the world's wolves, did not travel far at first. Most stayed within a mile or two of their pens. Groebner and his colleagues from several agencies, among the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, expected that the wolves would range more freely as they became more accustomed to life in the wild. They hoped as well that the population released in the Blue Range would grow to 100 individuals by the year 2002.
The presence of lobos along the Blue made for nice historical symmetry, for it was in the Blue Range that Aldo Leopold, today one of the guiding spirits of the American conservation movement, first came to know the wilds of the Southwest. Thanks to Leopold's later efforts, in 1925 the nearby headwaters of the Gila River became the nation's first official wilderness area. But before he did this good deed, Leopold worked as a government hunter, and killed dozens of wolves in the area. He came to regret his work only after he mortally wounded an aged female, failing to make what hunters call a clean kill.
"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes," he wrote in his now-classic memoir A Sand County Almanac. "I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
That trigger itch remained a problem. On the morning of April 28, 1998, a camper shot and killed one of the males, known to government biologists as #156. The lobo was scarcely a mile away from his acclimation pen on Turkey Creek. In the two months that followed three more wolves were shot dead.
The killers were still at large.
Government biologists had spent years breeding captive wolves, studying captive wolves and politicking to bring them back to the wild. Their work was far from over, for they still had to fend off the considerable controversy that surrounded their project.
Many local ranchers feared then, and now, that the lobos would harass and kill their livestock, and they had some reason to do so. On the bulletin board of a gas station in Alpine, Arizona hung a photograph that shows one of the reintroduced wolves attacking a herd of cows just outside town. Other rural Arizonans feared that the reintroduction would harm tourism and local industries alike.
Before reintroduction, no one could say with any certainty what the wolves would do in the wild. Immediately after release one wolf, a year-old female from the Campbell Blue pack, took off and made her way 70 miles northwest of the release site. Captured after two weeks on the run, she was removed to a captivity site in central New Mexico. Other wolves quickly strayed outside the 7,000-acre wilderness area into which they had been inserted.
It is this uncertainty that distressed locals. Dink Robart, a blacksmith who held cracker-barrel seminars in constitutional law at an Alpine general store, organized local opposition to the reintroduction effort. "My people are ranchers, most of 'em," Robart told me. "When I first heard about the wolf being brought back up here, I was pretty upset. After all, the wolf is a predator on livestock. The ranchers already have enough to worry about -- the economy is depressed, and the big companies are trying to buy everyone out around here, just like they did in the Midwest.
"My bitterness about the wolf reintroduction program isn't so much with the wolves themselves. I like wolves, what I know of them," Robart continued. "It's with how the government brought them to us. The people around here were willing to give the wolf a try. We just didn't like the way the government brought it down on us . . . . They should have had more local involvement from the beginning, maybe given some of the local people jobs surveying the wolves, building the pens, and so on. If they had, things would have been a lot smoother. But instead, they released the wolves too close to civilization, so now we get wolves in our yards, chasing our cows and attacking our dogs. It wasn't fair to the wolves, and it wasn't fair to us."
The ranchers and loggers up on the Blue River of Arizona liked to point out that nearly everyone in their communities opposed the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf. "At the town meeting the government held in February, when normally 20 or 30 people would show up, we had 160 in the audience," said Alpine rancher Bobby Fite. "You could count the number of people who wanted the wolf there on one hand."
Local sentiment was overwhelmingly anti-wolf -- or, more to the point, anti-federal government. Even so, several area residents told me, quietly, that they liked having wolves at their doors. One woman, a native Arizonan, said, "I make the drive down the mountain to Eagar every day. I see lots of animals -- deer and elk, mostly, and sometimes bears and mountain lions. I'd like to see the wolves here, too." Another woman poured me a cup of coffee and said, "I'm one of the few locals who wants the wolves here. But don't tell anyone, all right?"
The idea, then, that local people were uniformly opposed to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf, while only city people were for it, as some opponents of the program maintained, was not quite correct. Still, the greatest public support for reintroduction issued from places like Tucson, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Denver -- and, of course, Washington, D.C. -- where governmental and environmental organizations alike had been closely following the progress of the project.
Of the 11 wolves originally released on March 30, 1998, none remained in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Some had been returned to captivity. The rest had been shot dead. On the strength of these figures alone, it promised to be difficult, indeed, for the government biologists to see their chief goal met: namely, that the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area and environs would host a population of 100 Mexican gray wolves by the year 2002.
New wolves were released into the Blue, and later into the Gila wilderness farther to the east, in the winter of 1999. The hope continued that this handful of wolves now in the wild could eventually reestablish themselves, and eventually even flourish there.
But there is little cause for cheer. The optimism that accompanied the initial release is no more. The 1999 release, again attended by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, was done with little fanfare, doubtless to keep from advertising the wolves' location to would-be murderers. Gone, too, was the idea that a hundred wolves could spread throughout the Mogollon Rim in two or three years.
Proponents of reintroduction can be cheered by this: even though the human residents of the area were not in favor of the return of the lobo, most seemed willing to let nature take its course, and to see whether the wolves would make it on their own. Bobby Fite, whose cattle the two-year-old female from the Campbell Blue pack stalked just outside Alpine, told me, "When I saw that wolf approaching my calves I just fired a warning shot from a little .22 magnum I keep in my truck. I could have killed her, but I didn't. It's important that people understand that the local people won't kill a wolf unless they absolutely have to. We all agree on that. And we're all cooperating with the government. We don't like the way they do things, but we're playing along."
Plenty of people are still keeping an eye out on the Mexican gray wolves. And for the moment, a fortunate few can hear a sound long absent from the Arizona and New Mexico highlands: the plaintive, rising howl of Canis lupus, back in the wild. The road to recovery has been daunting. In 1998 the federal authorities released 11 Mexican gray wolves into the Arizona wilderness. Fourteen years later, in 2012, there are only 58 wolves in Arizona. In 2015 the population is now around 110.
Endangered Mexican wolves are making a comeback in Arizona and New Mexico. Watch as wildlife managers count Mexican wolves to find out if 2014 is a record-breaking year.
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