Livin' La Vida Lobo

Firm footing is hard to find for Mexican wolves in the American Southwest

by Heidi Ridgley

© Joel Sartore/ (captive)

© Joel Sartore (captive)
It’s 5:15 on a June morning when four Rocky Mountain elk step casually in front of our van. Their thick necks jut forward, elongating then contracting, as they move single file across the rocky dirt road and back into the forest. We pause to watch but only for a moment. Impressive though they are, we are on a mission to see a wolf, and if last night is any indication, it just might happen.

Only a few hours earlier, sitting around a campfire at Maverick Ranch on White Mountain Apache tribal land in Arizona, wildlife techs Ivan Kasey and Deon Hinton turned their heads skyward and howled into the dark, not really expecting much. But from the mountain came an answer—three times.

At first light, we pile in the van and head in the direction of the howls. Craig Miller, Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest representative, who is leading our freshly assembled troupe, has half his body hanging out the passenger-side window looking for wolf tracks or scat. But it’s the driver, Krista Beazley, the White Mountain Apache wolf biologist, who spots the wolf sign first. The scat is fresh but already hardened by the night’s 40-degree temperature.

From the cool weather to the Ponderosa pines, this isn’t like other parts of Arizona, where the summer temperature routinely reaches a wilting 110 degrees and the Sonoran Desert’s saguaro cacti stand stoically between sun and sand. This is the lesser-known east-central part of the state, part of the coniferous Colorado Plateau, and the place where the so-called Mexican wolves—loathed so irrationally that they were poisoned and shot completely out of existence in the United States by 1970—were returned in 1998 by a federal government coming to terms with its mistake. But unlike the greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s gray wolf population, repatriated in the mid-1990s, the foothold here of the Mexican wolf, or el lobo, has remained tenuous—at best. That they remain at all is a near-miracle.

About the size of a German shepherd—much smaller than their cousins in the Northern Rockies and the Midwest—el lobo once roamed in the thousands throughout southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, western Texas and northern Mexico. But with Manifest Destiny their mantra, cattle and sheep ranchers put down roots and by 1893 the territory of Arizona-New Mexico established bounties on “predatory wolves.”

Life for the lobos would never be the same.

Within 100 years they were gone—except for a handful in Mexico, which were caught and put into a U.S. captive-breeding program in the late 1970s, about the same time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared them an endangered species. Ultimately, FWS reintroduced 11 wolves into the 4.4-million-acre Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, made up of the Gila and Apache national forests and wilderness areas in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico—adjacent to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. This is where the nine of us—part of a pilot White Mountain Apache wolf-watching eco-tour—are hoping to spot a wolf today.

According to the government’s recovery plan, by the end of 2006 at least 100 wolves, including 18 breeding pairs, should have found firm footing in the Blue Range area—which is about twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. Instead at FWS’s latest year-end count, the number dropped to a perilously low 42, confirming another year of drastic decline that began in 2003.

That year, in an attempt to build trust with livestock producers and increase tolerance for wolves, state and federal wolf project managers adopted a three-strikes-and-the-wolf-is-out policy, which required that any wolf that killed or may have killed three livestock animals in a year had to be killed or returned to captivity.

That was true even if it happened on the 97 percent of wolf range that was on public forest land and despite the fact that wolf kills account for a fraction of cattle deaths each year—0.3 percent to 2.5 percent of all cattle losses in the recovery area, according to wildlife ecologists with Industrial Economics, Inc., a firm contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The agencies had good intentions in increasing their responsiveness to ranchers’ concerns, but the aggressive wolf-control measure repeatedly knocked the population down and kept it there,” says Miller. “Three depredations triggered removal, without regard to the wolf’s genetic importance, the precarious state of the wild population or other factors such as livestock husbandry that may have contributed or caused the depredations.”

Add to this that some ranchers may have intentionally exploited this policy by leaving sick or vulnerable cows near wolf dens to purposely entice wolves, as in the case of Mike Miller, a New Mexico rancher who admitted his deed to High Country News in 2007. Mike Miller said he used telemetry equipment provided by FWS to locate the den of a pup-rearing female and then branded cattle nearby to entice the wolves in for a feast. FWS officials responded by killing the female, leaving her pups to die and the pack to fail.

“Pack sizes in the Southwest are small,” says Craig Miller. “The removal of even one or two wolves can seriously disrupt family structure and cause pack failure. The cumulative effects have been disastrous to recovery.” Since reintroduction, wildlife managers have killed or permanently removed 59 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, despite the fact that each year more than 1,300 cattle die from causes other than wolves. But last year Defenders sued FWS to end this harmful policy, and since reaching a settlement no wolves have been killed or removed under the three-strikes-rule.

But even with this hard-edged policy gone, illegal killing continues at an alarming rate that makes it difficult for wolves to gain ground. Wolf-haters have unlawfully killed at least 34 Mexican gray wolves since 1998, making it the main cause of death for Mexican wolves, according to FWS officials who have since only caught and prosecuted two wolf killers.

In fact, a few days from now, when our entourage emerges from the Apache wilderness to plug back into the 21st century, we will almost immediately learn that an alpha male from the Hawk’s Nest pack—one of the original packs reintroduced into the wild—has been illegally shot and killed. This wolf was the leader of a pack with a proven record of avoiding livestock. Arizona state game and fish officials say the pack has even moved through groups of cattle to get to elk. Ironically, the animal was doing exactly what he was supposed to do—and teaching his pack mates, too—but someone killed him anyway.

And the bad news doesn’t stop coming. A week after this FWS announcement comes another. This time it’s the alpha male from the San Mateo pack. Then, a few days later, a Hawk’s Nest yearling is shot to death, leaving only the alpha female and a yearling to raise seven pups.

But on this summer morning all that troubling news is still a week or more away, as we ramble down the bumpy dirt road through the wolf’s ancestral ground. Having left the scat behind, we stop now to check a camera trap to see if el lobo had passed this way. All we find are pictures of cows frozen in time. But on the way back we run into bear trappers working for the tribe who say they saw a large, collared male less than a week ago just outside our camp. Craig Miller turns to the group, mentioning that the field team hasn’t been able to locate the alpha male from the Paradise pack for three or four months despite several fly-over searches. “But now, we have a visual from last week, we heard howling last night and found fresh scat this morning,” he says. “There’s still a chance for us to see one.”

That’s especially true given we still have another two days at camp. But right now we’re heading off the reservation into the Apache Sitgraves National Forest, territory of the Hawk’s Nest pack. Along the way, we pause to watch nine dusky grouse chicks cross the dirt road like little wind-up toys.

Moving toward Mount Baldy on our way to a horseback ride, we pass the largest sheep operation in Arizona. For a mile and a half along the road runs a wire fence that keeps Carey Dobson’s 3,000 sheep contained. More importantly, the long strips of red plastic tied to the fence—an Old World technique called fladry—keeps wolves out. “Apart from keeping the predators away, when you wake up in the morning, the sheep are already corralled,” says Dobson. “You don’t have to go chase down 3,000.”

As part of its “coexistence partnerships” program to proactively deter wolves from preying on livestock, Defenders has partnered with the Dobsons, Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Mexican Wolf Fund to provide the fencing and is also sponsoring three range riders to keep livestock and wolves from fatal encounters. “Human presence alone can be enough to deter wolves,” says Chris Bagnoli, an official with Arizona’s Fish and Game Department, when he meets up with us later that afternoon. “It’s not a novel concept. Wolves know if people are around it’s not good. But if they learn that livestock is something they can easily eat—they are predators, after all—it is what they will do. Partnership projects are all about preventing wolves from figuring out that cows are easier to catch than elk. In fact, this winter the Hawk’s Nest pack came off the mountain, went right through a calving pasture and into the grasslands to kill elk.”

There’s another key to the wolf’s recovery: the White Mountain Apache tribe. With its 1.6 million acres of mostly wild land located between the wolf recovery area and excellent unoccupied wolf habitat further to the west, the White Mountain Apache tribal lands will serve as a gateway or a guantlet to recovery. That’s the reason Miller has us here on a trial tour this week. The eco-tour he is helping the tribe launch this spring hopefully will bring much-needed tourist dollars to the tribe, create jobs, foster skills and talents and bring those that revere the wolf to a place where wolves and people may learn to live in harmony.

But watching wolves in the White Mountains is not as simple as it is in Yellowstone, where you can stand just off the road in the Lamar Valley with a spotting scope and easily track several of the animals in a morning. Lobos in the Southwest are far rarer, and our trip comes to an end without anyone in the group seeing a wolf.

Before everyone goes their separate ways, though, el lobo gives us a parting gift. The night is moonless as we drive past vanilla-scented pines to a spot where it’s so dark we can’t see our hands before our faces. Miller howls out in a perfect, soulful pitch. A moment later, the haunting reply drifts through the crisp air. It’s the next best thing.

Senior Editor Heidi Ridgley is practicing howling for her next excursion into wolf country.

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