You needn't wander far into the hill country along the Arizona-New Mexico line, nor linger long among its rustic country stores and rural diners, before you'll soon hear about the wolf.
That would be the Mexican gray wolf, reintroduced here in 1998 and serving as the whipping boy for anti-government sentiment in this deeply conservative region ever since. Such animus has resulted in the poaching of wolves and unexplained disappearances. It has prompted artificial boundaries beyond which wolves are not allowed to roam—lest they be removed—and led to a dysfunctional management regime that seemed doomed from the get-go.
A congressman representing the area has introduced measures that would gut funding of the wolf program and/or cap its numbers. Most recently, members of the New Mexico State Game Commission—most of them newly appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez—voted to end the state's participation in wolf-recovery efforts.
In Catron County, the southwestern New Mexico jurisdiction where anti-wolf sentiment is rabid, county commissioners have filed a complaint with Gov. Martinez over the alleged mishandling of what they claim was a wolf attack on cattle. "Catron County has taken a no-wolf stand," County Commission Chairman Hugh McKeen wrote in a press release directed at the governor. "I'm requesting that you take a no-wolf stance, too."
But despite the rancor, some wolf advocates see this long-embattled project emerging even stronger due to major management changes, and the pending rollout of the first new recovery plan in nearly 30 years.
"We're cautiously optimistic," says Eva Sargent, Southwest program director for the Defenders of Wildlife. "I think it's on the upswing."
Optimistic enough, in fact, to arrange special events across the country—including Tucson—to celebrate the wolf and reinvigorate its fan base. From Saturday, Sept. 3, to Saturday, Sept. 17, the group will host a "Where's El Lobo?" scavenger hunt. The prize is a top-shelf Apache Wilderness journey for two, deep into the heart of wolf country. For more information, go to WheresLobo.org.
At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional headquarters in Albuquerque, spokesman Tom Buckley describes a period of readjustment for the wolf program. For instance, the end of participation by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish means there will be fewer hands to keep track of the animals. "It reduces the manpower we had working on it in New Mexico," Buckley says. "We have to somehow fill in the gaps where their folks were working on the ground, monitoring and doing the other things that the wolf team does."
New Mexico's pullout "was disappointing," he says, "but it didn't significantly impact our program. We just have to work around the fact that we have a few gaps in our staffing."
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish spokesman Lance Cherry didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
Buckley also contends that the program has turned a corner since 11 wolves were first reintroduced into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in 1998. Among other changes, he says that U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are debating whether to list the Mexican gray wolf as a distinct population or a separate subspecies. "It would give us a little more management flexibility, and we wouldn't be tied to the fate of the North Rockies and the Midwest wolves."
That would also be a return to the days when it was listed separately, before being moved "under the umbrella of the gray-wolf listing," says Buckley. "I don't know what the rationale (for that change) was."
Other big shifts included the disbanding of the Mexican Wolf Adaptive Management Oversight Committee (AMOC)—the result of a lawsuit brought by Defenders and other groups in 2008—and a halt to strict enforcement of Standard Operating Procedure 13, which dictated the removal of wolves for cattle depredation, and was responsible for pulling genetically important animals from the project.
To critics, not only was the AMOC terribly dysfunctional—its tortured recommendations came from a sprawling committee composed of federal, state and tribal officials—but it also diluted Fish and Wildlife's responsibility toward management of the wolf. Not that disbanding the AMOC didn't lead to protests in some quarters, of course, such as from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which complained of being relegated out of the decision-making process.
But to wolf advocates, dissolving the AMOC means that U.S. Fish and Wildlife has reasserted its role and streamlined wolf management. "The decision-making process is a lot clearer now, and I would venture to say a lot faster than it was under the old regime," says Buckley. "There are less people to handle and massage and consider requests for action that had to be made."
In its place, Fish and Wildlife has created an "interdiction committee" with members from various affected counties, along with environmentalists and advisers from Arizona Game and Fish. And it simply focuses on depredation issues, such as compensation for ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves, similar to a program long run by Defenders.
The new interdiction trust fund holds roughly $60,000 in contributions, and is administered by the stakeholders' committee, which includes everyone from ranchers to environmentalists. "It's good, because you have ranchers helping ranchers; you have environmentalists helping ranchers; and you also get ranchers involved in less-than-lethal approaches to these various problems," says Buckley.
With the new recovery plan, Sargent also expects to see an easing of the wolf-reintroduction-area boundaries. And that could have a huge impact on the entire program.
"Everybody knows that the boundaries don't work," she says. "Fish and Wildlife knows they don't work. Environmentalists know they don't work. ... It's kind of silly to expect a species to expand when it's in a box."
Perhaps most importantly, Sargent says, many of the ranchers who had bitterly fought this project are now getting onboard, as the number of wolves slowly rises—from 42 up to 50 over the past couple of years—after decades of fits and starts.
"More ranchers are interested. They've sort of realized that, 'OK, the wolves are here to stay. Now let's figure out how we're going to live with them.'"