Call of the Wild

Can Ranchers Come to Peace with the Wolves in Their Midst?

The spirit of the Wild West is alive and well in the hamlet of Reserve, New Mexico.

The seat of Catron County is home to a scant 600 people, and Main Street is little more than a collection of old adobe homes, log cabins, and double-wide trailers. Jake’s General Mercantile anchors the crossroads at the middle of town; on one side is Ella’s Café, across the street is La Familia Carmen’s Mexican food, which serves a mean red chili sauce. “Always Kiss Your Cowboy Goodnight” reads a hand-painted sign near the door to Village Thrift, a tan adobe where locals gather around the stove to trade news. Perhaps this referred to the old-timer with the chest-length, black-and-silver beard I found hanging out at the shop a few days before Thanksgiving. He was wearing a leather vest, a well-loved cowboy hat, and a nickel-plated six-shooter strapped to his right hip. The pistol butt faced outward, ready for a crossdraw. One arm in a sling, he did not appear in the mood for a kiss.

photo of open space and mountains The people who live in the woods and grasslands of Western New Mexico and Eastern Arizona
make a trade-off between rugged beauty and the vicissitudes of living amid wild lands.

Reserve is a remote and rugged place. The village sits in a high-desert valley (elevation 5,765 feet) split by the shallow San Francisco River. There are mountains on all sides: the Tularosa Mountains making an arc from the southwest to the northeast, the San Francisco Mountains on the other side, each of the ranges covered in thick stands of ponderosa pine. The narrow, gray cliffs of Starkweather Canyon guard one of the two approaches to town. Albuquerque is 200 miles away, a three and a half hour drive down narrow country roads.

Reserve may be an out-of-way-place, close to the middle of nowhere, but it’s at the very center of the debate over the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf. The ranchers and hunting outfitters of Catron County and adjacent Grant County form the vanguard of the opposition to the wolf’s return to the Southwest. The predator, they say, is a threat to their cattle herds, as well as to the elk and deer that roam the juniper- and piñon-studded grasslands. The wolves, Catron County locals say, are even a threat to their families. In recent months, the community of Cruzville, just up the road from Reserve, has become (in)famous for its wolf-proof school bus shelters designed to keep kids safe from what they believe is the menace prowling the woods. A large sign at the entrance to Reserve warns: “Beware – Danger. Free-Roaming Wolves. Protect Your Children & Your Pets.” The warning is illustrated with the grisly photo of a beagle that had half of its face taken off by a wolf pack.

The fight over the wolf’s return to the Southwest – like the larger battle over the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains – is mostly a contest about control. Who should control decisions about public lands use, wildlife management, and resource development? The federal government, or local agencies? To many rural folks the feds seem a distant and threatening enemy, and the wolves have become a kind of proxy target, a scapegoat for worries about the power of the federal government. Embedded in the dispute about local versus federal control is the larger question of how we think about the control of nature. Must we always keep nonhuman nature on a tight leash, or can we relax our grip and let natural systems run their course?

Some version of that question is at the heart of nearly every environmental controversy. In this case the terms of the debate are especially stark and dramatic. We humans love to project our ideas onto animals, and the wolf today is burdened by serving as the preeminent emblem of wildness. It is the symbol of wildlife (matched perhaps only by the grizzly). This is true for both the wolf’s opponents and its proponents. The wolf’s human allies love it because it is untamed; its human enemies fear it for the same reason.

And so the fight over the fate of the wolf is, at its heart, a test of whether ranchers and hunters will ever be able to reconcile themselves to the wolf’s wildness. The good folks of Catron County, New Mexico guard their freedom carefully. They are proud of their ability to survive in a harsh landscape. They are, in their own way, untamed.

The question is whether they will be able to extend their love of liberty to the wolf’s own wild instincts.

Everyone wore their tribal affinities on their sleeve at the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf public comment hearing held in Albuquerque on November 20. The ranchers looked the part of ranchers – most of them wore cowboy hats and cowboy boots, stiff 517s or Wrangler’s, and dun-colored Carhartt jackets. The enviros and wildlife lovers fit their own stereotype; there were lots of hiking boots and fleece jackets, along with baseball caps emblazoned with the logos of green groups. One woman was dressed up as a wolf, fuzzy ears and furry tail and all. The hunters seemed a hybrid – cowboy boots and stiff jeans on the bottom, fleece and ball caps on top. The grand ballroom at the Embassy Suites was packed. Some 500 people had turned out to express their feelings about the wolf.

The impassioned comments delivered during three hours of testimony closely followed the script of the decades-long Wolf War. Environmentalists – spearheaded by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance – made the case that the apex predator is an essential part of a healthy ecosystem, and that, as a matter of ecological justice, the animal should be allowed to roam across much of its former range. “I believe this species has no chance to survive if we don’t protect it,” a wolf lover named Isabel Rodolfi said. “We are part of nature, and nature never belonged to us alone in the first place. It would be nice to share our resources.”

The ranchers, led by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, complained that the wolves put their livelihoods at risk. “These animals will prey on our pets and our livestock, and perhaps worse,” a representative from the organization said.

Hunters and outfitters, represented by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, argued that while predators have a place in the landscape, their numbers must be closely controlled so they don’t overwhelm game herds. “It should be left to each state agency, not the federal government, to decide whether wolves should be allowed in their territory,” a spokesman for the group said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service staffers on the dais, a gray-suited group straight out of federal bureaucrat Central Casting, listened impassively throughout the comments, giving little clue as to what they were thinking. (The Albuquerque hearing was the fourth of five public comment sessions the USFWS hosted across the country this fall. The public comment period closes on December 17; you can share your written views with the government here.)

The specifics of the debate over the Mexican gray wolf differ somewhat from the controversy surrounding the wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes regions (which James William Gibson has closely followed for the Journal). In the northern parts of the country, where an estimated 5,000 wolves live in the wild, the USFWS is proposing to remove the wolf from the endangered species list. The USFWS’s proposed delisting is the follow-up to an unprecedented 2011 Congressional vote to remove federal protection for the wolf in the Rockies. The southwestern wolf is in a much different place. There are just 75 Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi, a distinct subspecies) in the wild, with another 300 animals in captive breeding programs in the US and Mexico. The USFWS is moving to allow the wolf’s population to expand to up to 100 animals, and to significantly expand the area in which the wolves are allowed to range.

photo of a wolf, running© Jim Clark / U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceTrying to contain wolves to the Gila and Apache National Forests is about as pointless and as effective as
trying to tack olive oil to the wall.

Environmentalists have cheered the proposal to let the Mexican gray wolves travel across a larger area. The change in management strategy appears to be an admission by the USFWS that constraining an animal like the wolf isn’t workable. The current wolf recovery zone is pretty big – about 6,800 square miles, or some 4.4 million acres, in the Gila and Apache National Forests. But that’s still a tiny pen for an animal that can cover 200 miles in a 24-hour period. The back roads of Arizona and New Mexico are sprinkled with elk and deer warning signs, and one doesn’t have to succumb to anthropomorphization to imagine that the wolves aren’t going to keep to the strongholds of the Mogollon and Blue Range Mountains, but instead will follow their prey across the high-desert plains. Since 1998 the USFWS has had to “translocate” 104 wolves that have roamed outside of the human-created recovery zone. “Translocation” is government-speak for shooting the animals with a tranquilizer dart from a helicopter; picking up the sedated animal and moving it sometimes more than a hundred miles to new territory; and re-depositing it into the landscape, a traumatic experience that often blows apart the wolves’ sophisticated pack structure. The whole effort is about as pointless and effective as trying to tack olive oil to the wall. As one wolf advocate after another reminded the government biologists at the Albuquerque hearing, “wolves can’t read maps.”

Allowing the wolves more space to roam is the very least the USFWS should do, says Dave Parsons, a former USFWS wildlife biologist who launched the wolf recovery program in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1990s. “A leaked 2011 recovery plan from the Science and Planning subgroup of the Mexican wolf recovery team called for three distinct populations of at least 200 wolves each,” Parsons told me the morning before the packed public hearing. “Up to 750 wolves total, populations that would be interconnected via suitable habitat. The three regions would be the Blue Range Mountains, the current recovery zone; the Grand Canyon eco-region, into Southern Utah; and the Southern Rockies, meaning southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. In that 750 scenario, the density of wolves in a given area is very small. That’s what the best science calls for.”

An expanded range for the wolf is, in fact, what the best science calls for, as you can see here. At the hearing, a New Mexico State Senator from Albuquerque, Jerry Ortiz y Pino, urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to “make decisions based on science, not on balancing any interests,” which, he said, “is what we have politicians for.” To the applause of the wolf supporters in the room, the senator said: “This reintroduction has been hampered by a commitment to the original vision. Every time there is a criticism, you back off. Commit to the original vision, and keep science at the forefront. I urge you to make that the hallmark of your decision making.”

But that’s easier said than done. There are grazing allotments on about half of all National Forest System lands, making the livestock industry one of the US Forest Service’s major clients – and a political force to be reckoned with. At the Albuquerque hearing, New Mexico ranchers made it clear that their opposition to the wolf is unyielding.

“We have seen the reintroduction program become a threat to the safety, health, and welfare of our citizens,” said Bucky Allred, a rancher and café owner from Glenwood, a ranching community south of Reserve. “It is devastating and destroying our economic base – wildlife and livestock. We feel the agency has failed to keep us aware of your programs. The majority of citizens in Catron County oppose this program.”

So do many of the people in nearby Grant County, according to rancher Ty Bays. “I ranch down there. I raise cattle right next to Gila Wilderness,” he told the room. “Dave Parsons, the self-professed god of the Mexican wolf, said that they would not kill out cattle. We’ve been lied to. Now you’re saying you need more room. Soon 100 wolves won’t be enough. De-list the gray wolf. Do not expand the boundary. This program has been a complete failure.”

The ranchers’ antagonism to the wolf is, of course, nothing new. Since gray wolves began reappearing in the Rockies more than 20 years ago, sheep and cattle farmers have been the most impassioned opponents of the wolf. To them, the animal is nothing less than an existential threat. And so, it seems to me, this conflict won’t be settled unless the wolves are once again extirpated from the Lower 48. Or until the ranchers’ fever somehow breaks. But that would likely require a wholesale rethinking about how to co-exist with wildness – a distant prospect, to say the least.

“The wild is not wild,” Caren Cowan, the executive director of the cattle growers association, said at one point during the hearing. “It’s where our families are. It’s where we live. Trying to force them [the wolves] back in is not working for anyone, least of all the wolves. … The more wolves you turn out, the more you will subject them to harm.

The last line seemed a none-to-veiled threat against the animals – and it’s not a hollow threat, either. Since 1998, at least 50 wolves have been killed illegally in the Southwest. The number is probably far higher, wolf advocates say, since it misses the shooting of animals who weren’t wearing radio collars and whose bodies were never found. The most recent confirmed illegally killing occurred in late September, when a wolf was found alongside Bursum Road in northeastern Catron County, an arrow in its side. According to the USFWS, poaching is the number one cause of wolf mortality in the region.

“We are disproportionately affected by the wolves, unlike the people who are the wolf aficionados,” a Catron County rancher, Laura Schneberger, told me. She’s right: The ranchers are disproportionately affected, and the impact they feel explains, in part, their intense antipathy to the animal.

I can understand the anxiety in the ranching communities, and I’m sympathetic to their fears. In 2012, wolves killed at least 19 head of cattle and one mule across Arizona and New Mexico, according to the USFWS. Partisans on both sides dispute these numbers, with wolf advocates saying the figures could be too high, and opponents arguing they are too low. Since 2006, there have been 116 confirmed wolf depredations in Catron County, says Jess Carey, a wildlife investigator there. Still, it’s a statistically insignificant number. There are an estimated 5,275 head of cattle in the home range of the southwestern wolf packs; 20 kills annually would amount to less than 1 percent of the region’s total cattle herd.

“People say, ‘Oh, these folks are being irrational,’” Carey told me. “But when you’re living with them [the wolves], it’s a totally different perspective. The rural people of Catron County have always dealt with predators – bears or lions. If they are on your front porch, you can take action. With a wolf, you can’t take action, you can’t shoot a wolf.”*

Actually, I don’t think the ranchers are being irrational, even if it seems to me their fears are overwrought. The wolf kills might be statistically insignificant, but each depredation is meaningful to individual ranchers.

There’s no question that livestock depredation is a hard thing for ranchers to experience. For starters, losing an animal is a real financial loss that, if it happens repeatedly, can cost a rancher thousands of dollars. The federal government does reimburse ranchers for any livestock depredation that is confirmed to be a wolf kill, something that doesn’t happen for livestock depredation from coyotes, mountain lions, or black bears. Compensation ranges from $800 for a confirmed calf kill to $2,500 for a bull, and $225 for most sheep. But – as I know from helping out my pals at the sustainable and humane ranch, Dinnerbell Farm, and witnessing how depredation impacts them – financial compensation can’t cover the whole feeling of harm. Losing an animal that you’ve raised from the day it was born is a blow to the heart.

photo of cattle in a forestphoto Mike HudakIn 2012, wolves killed at least 19 head of cattle and one mule across Arizona and New Mexico, according to
the USFWS.

Yet depredation is also one of the risks of ranching. It’s part of the cost of doing business in a harsh and uncompromising land. And, more to the point, living with wolves is part of what it means to live amid the wild. Co-existing with predators is one of the trade-offs of making your home in an untamed place.

No matter where you live, there are going to be some trade-offs involved. For example, I make my home in Oakland, California. I like living there because it affords me access to the cultural amenities of a world-class metropolitan area. But there are downsides – traffic being one, crime another. In just the last three years my apartment has been broken into twice, and I’ve had not one, but two, bikes stolen. This lawlessness, it seems to me, is the natural consequence of the gross economic disparities that characterize the Bay Area in our Dot-Com Gilded Age. Crime goes with the territory.

The people who live in the woods and grasslands of Western New Mexico and Eastern Arizona make a different trade-off – a trade-off between rugged beauty and the vicissitudes of living amid wild lands. Whether they are locals who decided to stay or transplants who settled there, the residents of Reserve and Glenwood and Alpine, AZ have made a choice to live in the middle of a national forest. I can see why they have. The scenery is spectacular: the Mogollon Mountains rising suddenly off the plain, the stands of ponderosa pines carpeting the ridges, snow-frocked in winter and a cool respite in the summer. The opportunities for outdoor recreation are right outside the backdoor, whether that means hiking and mountain biking, or horseback riding and fishing. There’s a feeling of freedom in the big open spaces – no traffic on the road, no cameras watching every intersection. But that sense of freedom is, for some people, offset by their fear of the wolf.

Of course, it’s not exactly that simple. The ranchers and homesteaders who live in the middle of the Gila and Apache National Forests no doubt appreciate the ruggedness of where they live – but they also have an instinct to tame the land. This is what environmental historian Roderick Nash, in his seminal book Wilderness and the American Mind, calls the “wilderness condition.” The frontiersman has always had a conflicted and contradictory posture toward wilderness and wildness. Craving freedom, he seeks out the remote lands where nonhuman nature is dominant. Then, to survive, he must battle against that nature. He has to subjugate the very thing he loves.

Kerrie Romero, a representative from the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, summed up this thinking pretty well when she said at the hearing: “We spend thousands of hours in the backcountry. We understand the importance of a healthy predator/prey balance in the wild. We also understand that in a world of human authority, that dynamic needs to be managed in order to maintain balance.”

Perhaps. But a rifle barrel isn’t the only way to manage predators (for an example of ranching with the wild, see here). And there are limits to the power of human authority. By way of proof, just look at the reality of wildfires. Ecologists now understand that regular fires are a vital force in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. Archaeologists tell us that Native Americans routinely used fire to manage the landscape to encourage better grazing for game. Today, however, we don’t tolerate forest fires, mostly because they are too much of a threat to our property. Having sprinkled ourselves throughout the woods, we’ve decided that fire isn’t welcome.

Yet it seems to me that living with wildfire – like living with wildlife – is another trade-off of making your home in the forest. If you want to enjoy the charm of waking up every morning in a grove of ponderosa pines, you have to recognize that fire is a risk.

“It’s scary, living here in the summer, with all the fires,” a motel owner in Pinetop, AZ told me. I’m sure it is scary. Just as I’m sure it’s frightening to be a Mogollon rancher during calving season, and to know that somewhere out there in the woods is a wolf pack that would gladly make supper of that newborn animal.

Since the wolves of the Southwest aren’t going away – and, in fact, are poised to expand in numbers and range – it seems to me that it’s on the ranchers to find a way to live with that fear. Such fear – whether of wildfires or wildlife – is the natural accompaniment to living on the edge of the wilderness. It’s part of the trade-off of living in a beautiful and lonesome place. Wolves in the woods are a piece of the magic of living in a less-tamed land.

If you’re going to make the choice to live in one of the last remnants of the frontier in the Lower 48, then you should be prepared to accept that wolves come with the territory.

* Carey is exaggerating on this last point. Federal rules do allow you to kill or injure a wolf that is biting livestock on private property, or that threatens human life. Just see this sign, which I saw posted at a trailhead in the Gila Wilderness. Any wolf shootings must be reported to federal authorities within 24 hours.

This article has been modified since it was originally posted.

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