Arizona's Wolves Make Their Way Home--But for How Long?
By Gregory McNamee
DECEMBER 7, 1998: IN THE EARLY years of this century, agents of the federal and state governments combined in an ambitious campaign to rid Arizona of what was generally regarded as a dangerous pest: the Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi. Those agents were remarkably successful. They hunted the wolf to extinction in decades, killing it by the hundreds.
In the last few years, a new generation of federal and state agents has 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.
Although plenty of visitors had come to see the wolves in captivity, among them Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the release itself 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 has 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 them the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, expect the wolves to range more freely as they become more accustomed to life in the wild. They hope the population just released in the Blue Range will grow to 100 individuals by the year 2002, and perhaps sooner, and that this expanded population will disperse throughout the neighboring Apache National Forest of Arizona and the Gila National Forest of New Mexico.
The presence of lobos along the Blue makes for nice historical symmetry, for it was in the Blue Range that Aldo Leopold, today revered as 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 he 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 remains a problem. On the morning of April 28, 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 months that followed, three more wolves were shot dead.
The killers remain at large.
The biologists have long been preparing for reintroduction, through years of study, of breeding captive wolves, and of politicking. Their work is far from over, for they still have to fend off the considerable controversy that surrounds their project. Many local ranchers fear the lobos will harass and kill their livestock. Other rural Arizonans fear the reintroduction will harm tourism and local industries alike. Arizona legislators have introduced bills to put a bounty on the heads of reintroduced wolves. And some environmentalists believe the program should be stopped because it does not do enough to protect the reintroduced wolves from unhappy humans--to say nothing of the German Luftwaffe, which has asked for permission to hold low-level training flights above the Blue Range.
At the beginning of June, I traveled into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area to watch how the wolves were taking to their new home--and, more pointedly, to observe how the government biologists were gauging the results of their work. As the following notes from the field relate, I found the wolves were just one element in a complex, divisive struggle between various government agencies on one hand and Mogollon Rim communities on the other.
And, as events have borne out, in that struggle it appears the wolves will emerge as the loser.
DIANE BOYD-HEGER pushes a lock of strawberry blonde hair from her forehead and peers through the insect-spattered window of her Ford pickup. She's worried. Glancing again at a topographic map spread out on the front seat, she says, finally, "I think the Hawk's Nest pack has lost its pups."
At the moment, the truck is perched on the lip of a narrow mountain road overlooking a steep, rocky canyon along the eastern edge of Arizona's Blue River. We've been following that road for miles, having come to find out what we can about just what's happened to the Hawk's Nest pack of Mexican gray wolves. Released from captivity just eight weeks ago, these wolves are now fanning out far from their home site--unexpected behavior at a time when the wolves should be staying put and tending to newborn young.
Five humans have converged here to monitor the five wolves in the Hawk's Nest pack. At the head of the team is Boyd-Heger, a biologist who tracked wolves in Romania, Ellesmere Island, Minnesota and Montana before joining the Arizona Game & Fish Department early this winter. Her husband Ed Heger, Game & Fish Department colleague Cadie Pruss, and recent college graduates Dan Stark and Paul Morey make up the rest of the team.
And then there's me, digital camera and notebook in hand, here to report on the work of the biologists but now, in the tradition of participatory journalism, pressed into service. I've been duly deputized after a fashion, having been sworn to secrecy: I'm not to reveal the exact location of any wolf dens we might discover, nor visit them on my own. Thus temporarily inducted into the pack of wolf-watchers, I've just been given a fistful of plastic sacks and put to work collecting ash-colored wolf droppings, scat that, Diane hopes, will tell us something about the fortunes of the pack.
Diane puts two fingers in her mouth and whistles for the rest of her team, scattered along a wide, ponderosa pine-clad ridge, to assemble. She smiles widely at me. "Scat collecting with the right hand. Whistling with the left hand. Never get the two hands confused."
Chasing scat, even the scat of the fabulously rare Mexican gray wolf, is decidedly unglamorous work, especially with the thermometer registering 95 degrees. We fan out across a steep draw, spaced 100 or so feet apart, and comb the ground for evidence of the Hawk's Nest wolves' presence--bits of bone, gnawed skulls, tufts of elk fur, and, of course, droppings. "We're looking for bones and little mats of hair," Diane says. "We're also looking for puppy-sized scat. If you have any doubts, don't pick it up. I'd rather have no data than wrong data."
I work my way farther down the draw. To my right, Cadie signals me to come near. "Be vewy, vewy quiet," she says, in a spot-on Elmer Fudd impression. "There's a wabbit in this log." An instant later a rabbit shoots out of a log, wolfbait par excellence, and disappears into the forest.
A few minutes later, Cadie calls out, her voice answered by the indignant cries of Steller's jays and poorwills. She's found a den, a narrow hole burrowed deep below a rotten, fallen ponderosa pine trunk. The den appears to have been abandoned; pine needles have fallen deep within it, and spiderwebs encase the entrance.
"This is a good site for a den," Diane says. "There's probably a better one below."
Sure enough, there is, about a quarter of a mile away from the chain-link pen where the wolves had been kept through the winter, and from which they were released on March 30. The scattered remains of several elk mark the entrance to the den, the marrow sucked out of the long bones.
Cadie lies flat on the ground and lowers herself into the mouth of the den. "There's a definite canid hair here," she says, holding up a whitish bristle. Diane examines it and replies, "Yes, a guard hair. Good eye." She wanders off to examine a nearby daybed, a slight depression in the ground that a wolf has obviously lain in recently.
Cadie stands, brushing her head against a dead branch that disintegrates, sending bits and pieces of pine tree skittering down into the den. "When the wolves come back," she grins, "they'll say to each other, 'There were humans here. And messy humans at that.' "
Whether the wolves will come back to inspect our untidy work is anyone's guess. Radio telemetry signals from their collars indicate the Hawk's Nest pack is on the move, and traveling fast, parallel to the road and several miles to the east. They show no sign of turning back toward the place they've called home for the last few weeks.
We have found no puppy-sized scat. Neither have we found the remains of any pups. Diane sighs, examining a greasy bit of elk rib. "I'm guessing the female whelped above ground, and the pups probably died of exposure. We've got to remember these wolves have never denned in the wild. They may not know what to do."
"If the pups were alive, they'd only be three or four weeks old," observes Ed Heger. "They wouldn't be mobile. They'd be peeking over the edge of that den, staring at us, wondering what we were up to."
"Yes," Diane says, "they're not afraid of us at that age. I just don't think there are any alive. That's just speculation, but it's my best guess."
The presence of dens strongly suggests that pups were born. The quick movement of the pack strongly suggests the pups are not alive. It is perhaps not the best science, this argument from silence, from the absence of evidence, but the Hawk's Nest pack's behavior on this blistering hot day cannot be explained otherwise.
AT DAY'S END on June 1, our pursuit of the Hawk's Nest pack of Mexican gray wolves had taken us over a couple of dozen miles of broken, heavily forested country, the passage made more difficult by steep canyons and rushing streams, full of water from a near-record snowmelt.
While the rest of the team went off to monitor the Campbell Blue pack and disassemble a trap set for a former member of that pack--it had taken to bothering a nearby rancher's cattle--Diane Boyd-Heger and I tracked the Hawk's Nest pack down the length of a washboard Forest Service road to U.S. 191, a two-lane highway. Bouncing along in Diane's battered Ford pickup was easier work than collecting wolf scat, to be sure, but hard on the lower back and kidneys all the same, and I found myself breathing a small sigh of relief when Diane stopped the truck every few hundred yards to take radio-telemetry readings of the pack's progress. As she did, I scanned the hillsides and meadows with my binoculars.
And as I did, I'm convinced, the wolves took cover purely to deny me the chance to spot them running free.
Diane produced a topographic map and took a reading with a fine, expensive-looking compass. She pointed to the casing. "You know why this mirror's here?" she asked. "So you can see who's lost," she laughed.
We crossed over U.S. 191, heading toward the Blue River. Diane glanced at the map and said, "We've never tracked them this far east before. I wonder what they're up to."
Maybe they're hooking up with the Campbell Blue pack, I ventured.
"Who knows where they're going?" Diane replied. "I'm not even going to predict what they'll do next. They're wolves, and they'll do what they want."
IT'S NOW EARLY morning, and the temperature has already inched up above 80. Diane wanders into the wolf recovery team headquarters, a nondescript ranch house overlooking the hamlet of Alpine, Arizona, and plops down at the dining-room table, littered with coffee cups and government documents. She smiles, glad to be on the ground again. She's just come down from an early-morning air reconnaissance mission, buffeted by 90-knot winds that would put the fear in a less airworthy person.
The Hawk's Nest wolves, she announces, have made the loop back to a point just a half mile or so from the pen where they were originally released, just a few hundred yards from the den we found yesterday. "We just don't know what they do when we're not on duty," she says. "But it looks like they've come back home"--home, at least for the moment, being a few square miles of forested canyon.
Wildlife biologists call the process of keeping the wolves penned, feeding them (mostly roadkill, and that mostly elk and deer), and allowing them a slow acclimation before letting them loose in a limited area--in this case, a point in the northern quadrant of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area--a "soft release." In a "hard release," conversely, the wolves would have been simply let loose in the wild to fend for themselves.
Either approach to release is controversial. Says Dave Brown, the author of the esteemed study The Wolf in the Southwest (1983) and a retired Arizona Game & Fish Department biologist, "a wolf that's not raised in the wild is something else. It's not a wolf. Captive wolves learn quickly, for sure; they learn that bringing down an old cow is easier than chasing down an antelope. I fear that we'll see a lot of wolves in trouble with ranchers. You'll need to set up a large livestock-free area for the wolves, and there just isn't any such place in the Southwest. The reason wolves succeed in Canada and Alaska is that there are few ranchers and plenty of wild game. Down here the situation is the reverse, and the wolves are going to suffer because of it."
Dan Groebner, an Arizona Game & Fish Department biologist who has been working on the reintroduction effort for most of this decade, counters, "The evolutionary instincts built into the wolf are very strong. A few generations of captivity won't likely have had much of an effect on them."
Groebner appears to be right. The Hawk's Nest pack is the only one of the three reintroduced Mexican gray wolf groups to have scored a confirmed kill--of an elk, historically the lobo's preferred prey.
But Brown is right, too. The wolves have already gotten in trouble with local ranchers. On the bulletin board of the one working gas station in Alpine hangs a photograph that shows a member of the Campbell Blue pack harassing a herd of cows just outside town. Local residents have pointed the photograph out to me many times, as if to say, we told you so.
PUTTING THE WOLVES on the ground in the first place required years of planning and politicking on the part of game managers, biologists and environmentalists. Thus far, a scant two months into their freedom, the wolves have been a constant source of surprise for their monitors, biologists like Wendy Brown, Alan Armistead, Dan Groebner and Diane Boyd-Heger. The wolves have not been doing quite what anyone expected them to do. One of them, for instance, 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 has since been removed to a captivity site in central New Mexico. Other wolves have been less ambitiously on the move, but on the move nonetheless, straying outside the 7,000-acre wilderness area into which they've been inserted.
With the wolves, it appears that the only certainty is that nothing is certain.
It's for that reason that so much of the biologists' predictions and assumptions are really learned guesswork. Where will the Hawk's Nest pack travel next? No one knows. Will they attack livestock or humans? No one can tell for sure.
Today's guesswork centers on a particular matter: the Hawk's Nest pack has lost its pups, after having bred successfully during two years of captivity. Out in the field, visiting the abandoned den, Diane's team speculates as to why this should be so. Cadie Pruss hazards a guess that the stress of the airplane flight that brought the pack from its original captivity site, a suburb of Seattle, may have had something to do with the death of the pups. Dan Stark observes that the Hawk's Nest pack has had more exposure to humans than the Campbell Blue pack or the now-defunct Turkey Creek pack, both released deep within the bounds of the Blue Range. Paul Morey seems inclined to think the wolves just suffered a bit of bad luck.
Guesses will have to do. It may be possible to predict the wolves' movements with more certainty, but that would require more intense monitoring than simply mapping radio-telemetry signals and analyzing scat.
"There's a fine line between keeping these wolves wild and tracking them in the interest of science to find out what they're up to," Diane says, having just listened to signals from the pack's alpha female, known only as 127. "If it comes to a choice, I'll leave them alone."
She continues, "It's a hard call. If we disturb the wolves by constantly visiting them we create another generation of wolves habituated to humans. If we step back a little and leave a little mystery to this whole business, well, it's better, I think. I'm used to working with truly wild wolves, which are awfully smart creatures. These aren't truly wild; they've been raised in captivity. They're smart, too. They're also cunning--they know humans, and they know how to hide from us."
And hiding from us is just what the Hawk's Nest wolves continue to do.
YESTERDAY STARTED OUT suffocatingly hot, unusual for this high elevation. In the afternoon the air filled with thick smoke from a brush fire in Globe, 120 miles to the southwest. Then gale-force winds began to howl down the face of Escudilla, the mountain Aldo Leopold celebrated so memorably in A Sand County Almanac. The wind blew throughout the night, rattling the windows and sending up miniature tornadoes of dust across the valley.
And now this morning it's so cold that I can see my breath. I rise before dawn, awakened by the chill, and drive down U.S. 191 to the point where it meets Forest Service Road 26, the southern entrance to Hawk's Nest Canyon.
As the sun comes over the mountains, I pull my truck over next to a rushing stream, a little feeder of the Blue River. The land is exquisitely beautiful, a tableau of blue spruce, red rock, white water and lemon-green aspen.
And to that tableau is added, this windswept dawn, a black shape on the edge of a highland clearing.
It's dark enough yet that I can't be sure whether the shape is a wolf or a coyote. The Hawk's Nest wolves, biologist Diane Boyd-Heger tells me, look like coyotes from a distance, their pelts the same dusty tan and gray. And coyotes grow big, to wolf size, up in these game-rich mountains. Wolf or coyote, the animal stands still, sniffing the wind and keeping a wary eye on me.
I peer at the shape again. Like the biologists monitoring the lobo's reintroduction, I'm open to speculation.
Let's say it is a wolf, that dark blur an eighth of a mile away. If it is, this particular wolf is exhibiting the essence of its kind. For a wolf is a shadow on the edge of the forest, a shadow on the edge of civilization, ranging freely between the two.
THE REINTRODUCTION of the Mexican gray wolf has a long history behind it. That history begins in the nineteenth century, when Anglo-American settlers first began to arrive in the Southwest. "In traveling through the valleys of this section," an 1850 guidebook warned them, "you will pass through hundreds of wolves, during the day, which evince no timidity, but with heads and tails down, in their natural crouching manner, they pass within a very few rods of you." Thus warned, the settlers did their best to kill any lobos they happened on.
In the 1880s, cattle began to arrive in large numbers in the Southwest when ranchers like Henry Hooker abandoned the overgrazed plains of West Texas. Those ranchers were determined to make the territory their own, and they were not often given to sharing it with creatures they perceived as harmful to their interests. Badgers dig holes in the ground that can break a wandering cow's leg, hares browse the grasses on which steers fatten, river otters build warrens along stream banks that keep a calf from reaching water: the ready solution was to wipe out the offending animal.
Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican gray wolf, had two things going against it. Not only was it a predator, but it also inhabited just the places where cattlemen wanted to put their herds: grassy, well-watered meadows and river canyons. So the ranchers began to write back east to Washington, demanding that the federal government use its might to vanquish the lobo. In 1897, for instance, a rancher on the San Francisco River, into which the Blue River empties, wrote to his congressman to complain that wolves were destroying half a million head of cattle each year. It was an incredible exaggeration, but no matter; it led the government to establish the first federal program to destroy predators.
The ranchers found a sympathetic audience in government circles. William Hornaday, a hunter and writer who, as a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, had considerable influence in the Department of the Interior, advised his readers: "Of all the wild creatures in North America, none are more despicable than wolves. There is no depth of meanness, treachery or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend. They are the only animals on earth which make a regular practice of killing and devouring their wounded companions, and eating their own dead."
Wolves do no such thing, but no one argued with Hornaday. Beginning in World War I, when beef was at a premium, a combined team of Arizona and New Mexico forest rangers combed the highlands of the Southwest on the hunt for lobos. In 1916 they killed 85 Mexican gray wolves; in 1918, 111; in 1919, 131. Through a relentless program of shooting and poisoning with cyanide or strychnine, by 1925 the rangers had reduced the population of wolves in the Southwest to nearly nothing. Twenty years later no wolves were known to live outside captivity in Arizona.
Now, half a century after the last lobo was driven from the wild, the federal government has returned with a program to reintroduce the wolf to a 5,000-square-mile area within Canis lupus baileyi's historic range.
Arizona Game & Fish Department officials were ready for their federal counterparts. As early as 1984, notes Terry Johnson, AGFD threatened-species coordinator, state biologists had been formulating plans for reintroducing the lobo to remote areas in Arizona. When news of those plans made its way to the Arizona Farm Bureau and the Arizona Cattle Grower's Association, whose leaders and members flooded AGFD with letters of protest, the department publicly backed off, but some of its scientists continued to study the possibility of reintroduction. In February and March of 1990 AGFD surveyed 3,221 Arizonans about their attitudes on reintroduction; 77 percent of those polled favored reintroduction, 13 percent were opposed, and 10 percent had no opinion.
Those numbers, it appears, changed some minds. In 1991, the Arizona Wool Producers Association publicly announced that its membership would not oppose reintroduction if livestock producers were compensated for any wolf-caused losses. Shortly thereafter the Cattle Grower's Association and the Farm Bureau dropped their opposition to reintroduction.
At the beginning of 1992, AGFD released a draft proposal, prepared by Johnson, to reintroduce wolves into four state wilderness areas. One of them, the Atascosa/Patagonia Mountains just north of the Mexican border, was especially attractive. There, biologist Stanley P. Young noted in his famed 1940 study The Wolves of North America, lay one of the region's best-defined wolf runways (a runway being a path that surrounds a pack's turf), this one covering a distance of more than 70 miles. Many biologists believed that any newly reintroduced wolves would easily adapt to the runway, and that the Atascosa/Patagonia area was ideal. But AGFD eliminated it as a candidate for a reintroduction site. Terry Johnson will not venture an official explanation, but in the 1992 report he notes that nearly a third of the area is privately owned, mostly by ranchers, so local opposition may have been the deciding factor.
It's against this backdrop that the 1,576-square-mile Blue Range Primitive Area was chosen. It's a choice piece of territory that boasts high elevations, many perennial streams, few roads, and the kind of rocky, broken terrain in which wolves like to make their dens.
Perhaps most important of all, the Blue supports only a tiny human population.
THE HUMAN POPULATION on and near the Blue may be small, a few hundred people for most of the year, but it's vocal. They make it clear they don't much like the reintroduction project.
At this moment, their resentment settles on the fact that a dirt track off Forest Service Road 26, one leading into the area where the recently discovered Hawk's Nest den is located, has been closed to the public for the last two months. The track is little used, but that's not the point. To many locals, the road closure symbolizes the power of the government to restrict their right of movement in favor of an animal generally regarded as a dangerous pest.
Whether the Hawk's Nest den is abandoned or active has become a matter of central importance in the issue of the locked gate down off Road 26. Federal wolf-reintroduction law holds that a road may be closed to the public only if a captive population is present or a denning or rendezvous site has been established. Without pups, the Hawk's Nest pack has no need for a den. If the pack needs no den, the biologists have no right to lock the gate.
Diane spends hours today conferring with her colleagues in various government agencies. She's certain the Hawk's Nest pack is without young. She would also prefer to keep the road to the den area closed. The government scientists reach no decision over what to do next, but Diane's guess is that the road will soon be reopened to the public.
I'VE BEEN ON the ground here for five days, in country that I've come to know well over two and a half decades as an Arizonan.
Excepting the possibility of that shadowy presence off Forest Service Road 26, I haven't seen a wolf. This is all to the good, Diane Boyd-Heger says. She doesn't want people to see them, no matter how well-intended those people may be. "We're trying to keep the wolves wild," Diane argues. "The farther we keep them away from people, the longer they'll stay alive."
Diane has cause to be cautious. One of the reintroduced Mexican gray wolves, the alpha male of the Turkey Creek pack, is dead, shot by a camper who claimed the wolf had attacked his dog. The alpha male's mate, a pregnant female, has been returned to captivity in New Mexico. The Turkey Creek pack is thus no more, while the Campbell Blue pack is down to two members.
Only the Hawk's Nest pack remains intact, and its future is doubtful, only because of the danger humans pose to the wolves. "When their pelts get prime," says Diane, "one of them will be confused for a coyote and get shot. Hopefully, it'll be accidental."
Such a shooting may well not be accidental, for feelings against the lobo run high along the Blue. Hard feelings in general abound here. The locals resent the biologists. The biologists resent the locals. And everyone resents the media; a sign posted next to the phone at the wolf-reintroduction program headquarters says, "Do not discuss any aspect of the project w/reporters."
Paul Morey and Dan Stark, two young members of Diane's team, lived in Hawk's Nest Canyon through the winter, feeding the wolves in captivity. They wish the wolves had a better reputation locally, even if they, the biologists, do not. "When we'd bring them food," Paul says, "the wolves would run to the far end of the pen, away from us. They didn't want to have anything to do with humans. I wish we could have brought local people here to see the wolves in the pens so they could see how afraid the wolves are of us. Then maybe everyone would be a little less afraid of the wolves."
When I ask her what the ultimate purpose of the reintroduction experiment is, Diane Boyd-Heger says simply, "I'd like to see if there's still a niche for the Mexican gray wolf in the environment here. That environment includes humans and cattle. Only time will tell."
She adds, "Wherever wolves and people come into proximity there'll be controversy. That's been true everywhere I've worked--in Romania, in Minnesota, in Montana. It's true here, too. But that doesn't mean that wolves and people can't coexist."
NESTLED UNDER THE foot of 10,878-foot Escudilla Mountain, the hamlet of Alpine lies, in local parlance, in "high-lonesome country." For most of the year the population stands at under 300. In the height of summer and the tourist season, the figure may grow tenfold.
Alpine is the closest town to the Blue Range Recovery Area, where 11 Mexican gray wolves were released on March 30. The wolves were released there, along the Blue River, precisely because so few people live in the region; Apache and Greenlee counties, the Arizona districts into which the area falls, are together far larger than the state of Connecticut, but their aggregate population is fewer than 20,000.
In another kind of parlance, that of government biologists, the Blue was chosen "to minimize wolf-human interaction." And indeed, the chances of that interaction are small, as I've found out over a week of tracking the five-member Hawk's Nest pack.
Alpine may be small, a backwater on the road from nowhere to nowhere, but its residents are very much aware of the larger world. Over coffee at the Bear Wallow Café, they talk about trading horses and repairing battered pickups--but also about the merits of various Internet service providers. "Juno gives you free e-mail, don't they?" a waitress asks a customer, who nods in the affirmative.
And the larger world, many of the residents of Alpine feel, is bringing them nothing but trouble. The Mexican gray wolves and their attendant government biologists are one thing. Now, on this bright June morning, comes another potential source of trouble: advance scouts for the Rainbow Family, a loose-knit clan of hippies whose annual gatherings in national forests across the West typically draw 30,000 attendants, there for dope, music and cosmic brotherhood.
DINK ROBART, A blacksmith who holds crackerbarrel seminars in constitutional law at an Alpine general store, stares at a ragtag trio of Rainbow Family types, all bell-bottom jeans and halter tops, with a mixture of disgust and curiosity. He sends a stream of tobacco juice onto U.S. 191 and smiles at me ruefully.
"Well, they seem all right to me," he says. "A little dirty, maybe, but pretty well-mannered."
Known locally as "the mayor"--or, by some, "the mayor of the rednecks"--Dink is a well-read, lively man who seems to thrive on debate. On the matter of wolf-reintroduction, he has much to say; it was he who organized local opposition to the reintroduction effort, he who organized a rally that made national news on the day Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt passed through Alpine to release the wolves from their pens. "We had our signs out," Robart says, "but the Secretary went through here with a police escort at about 70 miles an hour. He ducked when he passed by, so I don't think he saw us. Probably a good thing, too."
"My people are ranchers, most of 'em," he observes. "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.
"I got all emotional about it, but I decided to study the issue," Dink continues. "My bitterness about the wolf reintroduction program isn't so much with the wolves themselves. Hell, I like wolves, what I know of them. 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. And we didn't think much of the government people to begin with. They don't know the country; if it had been up to me, I would have made them ride the range on horseback for a couple of weeks so they could see what this place is all about.
"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," Robart says. "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."
Ken Butler, a retired Phoenix contractor who has lived in Alpine for the last five years, agrees with Robart. "The wolves are gone, and I say we should leave it alone," he says. "They're spending, I hear, something like $14 million to reintroduce the wolves. That $14 million could go to a lot of better things. I don't think anyone really wants them here. Besides, they tell us that the wolves won't hurt cattle or pets. Well, they've done both. They're wild animals. No one knows what they're going to do."
Charles Bast, who owns a guest lodge in Greer, Arizona, some 40 miles west of Alpine, also agrees with Robart in many particulars. Born in a ranching family, he, too, is concerned that the wolves will eventually attack livestock and house pets.
"But my biggest concern with the wolf is the process," Bast says. "The government consultation with local people was just a charade; the powers that be gave no legitimacy to local views. They had made up their minds a long time ago that the wolves were going to be put here.
"The naiveté of the biologists bothers me, too--the idea that radio telemetry will enable them to keep track of each individual wolf," Bast continues. "I don't think they can keep tabs on them all, and I ask myself, Is it worth the risk to the general population? Why do we need the wolves back? Are we going to get dinosaurs back, too?"
Dinosaurs don't appear to be in the picture. But the wolves are, very much so. And so are the Rainbow Family.
And because of all these newcomers, the little town of Alpine is on edge.
THE RANCHERS AND loggers up on the Blue River of Arizona, as well as the townspeople of the White Mountains hamlet of Alpine, like to point out that nearly everyone in their communities opposes the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf. "At the town meeting the government held in February, when normally 20 or 30 people would so up, we had 160 in the audience," says Alpine rancher Bobby Fite. "You could count the number of people who wanted the wolf there on one hand."
To be sure, local sentiment is overwhelmingly anti-wolf--or, more to the point, anti-federal government, for it is federal initiative that brought the wolves to the highlands of Arizona. Even so, several area residents told me, quietly, that they liked having wolves at their doors. One woman, a native Arizonan, said to me, "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, a native of "the mountain," as its residents call the area, 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?"
In neighboring, deeply conservative Catron County, New Mexico, where Blue River wolves are one day expected to migrate, opinion on reintroduction is just as sharply divided. Ben Mater, a resident of Alma, just across the mountain divide from the wolf recovery area, says, "It's too bad this is presented as a two-sided issue, because there's really a lot more going on than that. I'm all for reintroduction, which makes me a little bit of an oddball here in Catron County. I think we ought to have the wolves in these hills--it's common sense to me that they belong here." An activist with Animal Protection of New Mexico, an Albuquerque-based animal-rights organization, Mater adds, "A lot more people here support environmental issues like the wolf than maybe outsiders realize, and it's possible to have a reasonable discussion about it. Even so, we're in conservative country, and we always have to remember that."
Local environmentalists do remember. Remarks one, a lifelong New Mexican, "Unfortunately, when it comes to a conflict around here, government arrogance is usually matched by mindless redneck violence. I'd like to see things done differently--I think those of us who live here ought to all become greennecks. And I bet 30 percent of the people here would say they're in favor of reintroducing the wolf. I sure am. But you can get your house burned down for saying so, and so people don't."
Naturally enough, he prefers to remain anonymous.
The idea that local people are uniformly opposed to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf, while only city people are for it, as some opponents of the program maintain, is not quite correct. Still, the greatest public support for reintroduction has issued from places like Tucson, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Denver--and, of course, Washington, D.C.--where governmental and environmental organizations alike have been closely following the progress of the project.
The future of the reintroduction program is in the balance. Only a few of the 11 wolves originally released in the Blue River Wolf Recovery Area are alive and in place. The pups from the Hawk's Nest pack did not survive their first weeks in the wild. On the strength of these figures alone, it promises to be difficult indeed for the government biologists to see their chief goal met: namely, that the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area and environs will host a population of 100 Mexican gray wolves by the year 2002.
And if that goal is not met? The government biologists working on the reintroduction project do not like to contemplate the possibility, but they seem prepared for the worst--for an ecosystem of humans and cattle that, to echo Diane Boyd-Heger's words, cannot make room for a disappeared predator now suddenly come back from the dead.
Proponents of reintroduction can be cheered by this: Even though the human residents of the area may not be in favor of the return of the lobo, most seem gladly willing to let nature take its course, and to see whether the wolves will make it on their own. Bobby Fite, whose cattle the two-year-old female from the Campbell Blue pack stalked just outside Alpine last month, says, "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."
Diane Boyd-Heger agrees with Fite. "It's really heartening, the way the entire town pulled together when the female wolf came up here. She stayed around for nearly three weeks, and no one did anything to hurt her. We had plenty of people complaining, but everyone kept an eye out for her."
Plenty of people are keeping an eye out on the Mexican gray wolves of the Blue Range. And for the moment, a fortunate few can hear a sound long absent from the lush granite canyons of the Arizona highlands: the plaintive, rising howl of Canis lupus, back in the wild.
IT IS NOW mid-November. Of the 11 wolves originally released on March 30, none remain in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Some have been returned to captivity. The rest have been shot dead.
New wolves were brought into the Blue just a couple of weeks ago in the hope of reseeding the mountains with their kind. The hope is not baseless, for it turned out that pups were indeed born to the Campbell Blue pack last spring, a sign that the wolves can increase their numbers if given the chance to do so.
Without human intervention, in other words, there is every reason to expect that the tiny handful of wolves now in the wild could eventually reestablish themselves on the Rim, and eventually even flourish there as they reinhabited their historic range.
But there is little cause for cheer. The optimism that accompanied the initial release is no more. The introduction of the latest group of wolves, 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, isthe idea that a hundred wolves will have spread throughout the Mogollon Rim two or three years from now.
What is left is the fear--or, if one sides with the killers, the happy conviction--that Canis lupus baileyi may never be able to make its home again along the banks of the Blue River, where once before it was driven nearly to extinction.
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