Wild Wolves

Uncle Sam Tries To Reintroduce Keystone Species

There's a war over wild wolves in the American West. It pits traditional enemies against each other in a feud that has already claimed casualties. As Correspondent Jim Stewart reports, the conflict has become extremely heated.

Since the program to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf began, five wolves have been shot dead, and others have simply disappeared. Locals blame the government for caving into the environmental movement. Environmentalists, in turn, blame the government for the program's failures.

It seemed simple enough. Eleven Mexican gray wolves, raised in captivity, would be released into the Arizona woods, multiply and live on their own for the first time in more than half a century. But the animals quickly got into trouble.

"When this reintroduction project started, they were doing fine," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer Steve Middleton, who is responsible for protecting the wolves. "But then we had four illegal killings in a very short period of time of about three months."

Middleton thinks that at least some of the wolves were deliberately killed by humans. He is in charge of finding the culprits.

The wolves were released in 1,000 square miles of the Apache National Forest in Arizona. This is not the first time the government has put wolves back into the wild. A program in the Yellowstone National Park is doing quite well.

But critics say this program is different. Yellowstone is a national park, where hunting and ranching are forbidden, and admittance is closely monitored. The Arizona wolves were released into a national forest, which is often full of ranchers and hunters.

"We certainly didn't anticipate that five of them, six of them, would disappear the first year, and that most of those had been shot," says Wendy Brown, a biologist with the wolf program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unless a person is attacked, killing a Mexican gray wolf on public land is a crime. Federal agents automatically investigate these killings. Those convicted face a $25,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

But finding the culprit is very difficult. "In some cases, you may have hundreds of people in the woods all at the same time with rifles that are all similar in caliber at least," Middleton says.

When a wolf is killed, Middleton collects evidence, just as if the victim were a human murder victim. The wolf even ends up in a body bag.

Many locals were unhappy about the wolf release. Among them is Jess Carey, who runs a gun shop in Catron County, New Mexico, just across the Arizona state line from where the wolves were set loose. He makes his living selling guns and ammunition to hunters who travel here for big game.

Carey strongly opposed the wolf reintroduction. He argued that the wolves would cross state lines and would eventually end up in New Mexico.

Federal agents interviewed him about the killings. Carey says he didn't shoot any woles and doesn't know anyone who did, and agents say he isn't a suspect. But Carey says he's been made to feel like one.

The government gives more respect to wolves than humans, he says. "We've got unsolved homicides here," Carey says. "And the reward for turning in a person for killing another person is $1,000. If you turn in a person for killing a wolf, you get $50,000. And that only goes to show where the rural people stand. We're worthless."

The wolf program in Arizona began when ecologist Kieran Suckling threatened to sue the government if it didn't release the animals into the wild there. Over the years, Suckling, the head of the Southwest Center for Biodiversity in Tucson, Ariz., has filed 156 lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act to save animals such as the spotted owl.

"Think of it as reintroducing a carburetor into a truck that's broken," Suckling says. "That truck is not going to run without the reintroduced carburetor. And that is what the wolf is. It's the keystone species. When (wolves come) into the ecosystem, they have a tremendous impact on the whole system. And they start to get it back to a level of balance."

Suckling hopes to bring the wolf population up to 100 or 200. Wolves once dominated the mountains and posed such a threat to cattle that the government paid ranchers and hunters a reward to kill them.

Now, some ranchers say, they are the ones who are endangered. "If the wolves weren't killing my cattle, I wouldn't have any problem with them at all," says Bud Collins, a New Mexico rancher.

Collins, who is not a suspect in the killings, owns one of the largest herds of cattle near the wolf release site. Eventually the wolves discovered it. This winter an Arizona pack loped over the state line and killed two of his cows grazing on New Mexico federal land. Even though he is reimbursed for lost cattle, he sees the wolves as a threat to his livelihood. He and others believe that the newly released wolves simply find cattle easier prey than the dwindling wildlife in the region.

Wolves and people can coexist, Brown says. "There's a lot of good country out there for wolves to occupy," she says. "Wolves are going to sometimes encounter people and end up in places where they really don't belong. And our responsibility then is to manage that situation."

Once a wolf attacks a domesticated animal, the Fish and Wildlife Service can declare it a troublemaker. The wolf is captured, put in a pen and held for relocation. But where do you put hungry predators when there's little room left?

The government wants to send them to New Mexico, which fought hard to keep them out. The government wants to release these wolves into an area on the edge of Catron County, which is cattle country.

Collins opposes this plan. "The government came in and put the wolves on us and then didn't give us any way out," he says. "It's a lonely place to be... when yodon't feel like your government's very damned concerned about you." He even suggests that the plan is part of a conspiracy to chase him and other ranchers away.

Suckling says that there is no conspiracy. "It's really unfair to say that, because you want prevent habitat destruction, you must be on some jihad against the ranching industry," he says. "I've always told those folks, 'Look, if you want to ranch, that's fine.' I got no more against ranching than I do against pizza manufacturing. All I want to see is people stop destroying the environment."

The wolves are also under pressure. Since the shootings, the government has provided a bodyguard service for the animals. It marked the wolves with spray paint so they wouldn't be mistaken for coyotes, which can be killed legally. They've also attached radio collars and now track the animals almost 24 hours a day, with aircraft and ground patrols.

The goal: to clear a path through humans when the pack moves. The patrols warn people that wolves are in their area and tell them not to harm the animals. It is a curiously high-tech version of living in the wild.

"It would be foolhardy for us to take animals directly from captivity," Brown says. "We could. We would also have a much higher mortality rate on these animals. The other way to go about this is to focus pretty intensive management on the animals that you do release, [to] try to ensure their survival."

Many of those involved are not happy with the current situation.

"If [the ranchers] feel they're under threat, that's because the public is sick and tired of cows pooping in streams, destroying stream banks," Suckling says. "They're tired of having all their wildlife slaughtered to protect the ranching industry. And it's not fair. It's not right. It's not legal. And it shouldn't be happening on our public land."

Carey, the gun store owner, suggests that there could be a "civil revolt."

"What's going to happen if one of their "nonwild" wolves kill one of our children?" he asks. "Is that going to bring an armed revolt? Is that going to bring retaliation on a few of the local supporters? Is it going to bring retaliation on the wolf employees?" Asked to answer his own question, Carey says he doesn't know what would happen.

"The whole country's got to wake up and make a decision," he says. "Do they want wolves or do they want us? And we really don't have much to say about it right now, and I think that's the sad part."

Two suspects were recently charged with one of the wolf killings. Suckling's group has now moved on to another cause: He wants to bring back the grizzly bear.