Fear and Loathing in Wolf Country

Arizona Game and Fish continues its campaign against returning wolves to their homeland.

Shameless fear-mongering, rampant anti-federalism and downright cowardice ruled a recent Arizona Game and Fish Commission meeting in Safford. And when it was done, the board had set the stage for withdrawing from the highly popular Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program.

There was, as always, a touch of actual science at the May 12 forum, presented by AGF department biologists. But somehow, despite the commissioners' eternal belly-aching about the lack of this information, or the absence of that study, real data rarely squeezes into the panel's decision-making process after ranching and commercial hunting interests are obliged.

This is hardly remarkable, given that several commissioners have close ties to big-game hunting organizations, ranging from the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and the Arizona Mule Deer Association to the infamous Safari Club. The Safari Club, which operates the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, has often been linked to the killing of endangered animals.

Then there's the fact that nearly all current commissioners were hand-picked by Joe Lane, an advisor to Gov. Jane Hull and brother of Arizona Cattlegrowers Association chieftain Doc Lane.

Still, disappointed or not, at least many observers left the five-hour meeting with a few intellectual gems to behold.

For instance, Commissioner Joe Carter of Safford introduced a fresh perspective on Arizona's open-range laws, following a discussion of wolf mortality in the wild. Particularly, he took issue with the notion of listing wolves killed by autos as human-caused deaths, as opposed to wolves gunned down by anonymous rednecks.

"How do we determine it was human-caused, simply because (a wolf) may have run into a car?" he asked. "If you're driving down a highway and a wolf runs into your car, why should you say it's the human's fault?"

The audience groaned. But a later speaker noted that if an upstart heifer dashes madly into traffic, the unwitting motorist who smacks into it is certainly liable for the bovine's untimely demise.

This might credibly imply that vehicular-critter collisions were human-caused, the woman said.

Then Sue Chilton, an Arivaca cowgal and newest commission member, aired her worries that wolves might soon drag swaddling babes off into the night. Given her ranching livelihood (and the resulting conflict-of-interest quagmire), it's hardly surprising that Chilton would be a less-than-exuberant lobo fan. But her cynical exploitation of rural fears shocked even her staunchest critics.

She said AGF liability from wolf attacks was a looming threat. "We know from recent news reports," Chilton continued, her voice rising with dramatic flourish, "that coyotes ran into a house outside Mesa and snatched a two-year-old!

"Now if coyotes can do that"--she paused for effect--"I'm not yet convinced that wolves won't one of these days do it in some campground."

What the cud-happy commish failed to mention, of course, was that there's never been a documented wolf attack against humans in the lower 48 states.

Ironically, and despite the commission's best efforts, wolf reintroduction has by most measurements been a resounding success. Commissioner Mike Golightly of Flagstaff, who has emerged as a lonely but steadfast lobo champion, noted that some 70 percent of Arizonans support the program, and that of 900 e-mails sent to AGF prior to the meeting, only six opposed it.

The department has been involved in the federal program since 1995, when it joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in releasing wolves into eastern Arizona. With 27 to 31 Mexican grays now on the ground, the project is well on its way to achieving a goal of 100 free-roaming animals by 2008.

Nonetheless, with the exception of Golightly, AGF commissioners are openly hostile to the program. But they apparently lack the courage to sack such a popular project outright. Instead, they chose to attack the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as not being responsive to rural concerns. Commissioner Carter introduced a motion demanding that no new release sites be established in Arizona, that FWS officials meet with affected rural residents in their home towns, and that the federal agency assume legal liability should a wolf injure a human.

"The commissioners know that the Fish and Wildlife Service will tell them to take a hike," says one observer. "This way they can get out of the program and simply blame it on the feds."

Victoria Fox, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in Albuquerque, says wolf reintroduction will continue, regardless of the AGF Commission vote. Beyond that, "We are not commenting until we receive a formal notice from Arizona Game and Fish," she says.

Still, commissioners' attacks on the FWS simply reinforce the board's emerging anti-federalist agenda, which has gained renewed inspiration from the George W. Bush administration. The commission's strategy became clear in January, when several members attempted to insert the term enlibra into Wildlife 2006, a massive, five-year mission statement for the department.

Literally, enlibra means "in balance." And it's used to imply that all affected parties--ranchers, hunters, land owners--are given a spot at the table when decisions concerning wildlife habitat are concerned.

But wildlife activists consider it little more than a code word favored by property-rights extremists, who hope to weaken habitat protection laws and gut the Endangered Species Act.

"It's a way of compromising and finding solutions that are good for a healthy economy and sustainable use, with the emphasis on use," says one activist, who requested anonymity. "But you'll notice that people's lives and living on the land always come first under enlibra."

That certainly fits nicely into the commission's hostility to wolf reintroduction, and particularly into the scheming of Commissioner Chilton. However, while Chilton and the ranchers she represents use every opportunity to attack governmental encroachment on their livelihood, they're never shy about bellying up to the federal trough when it comes to leasing public range-land for cattle grazing at what are considered fire-sale rates.

Such federal subsidies to ranchers in the West are estimated at about $400 million each year.

For example, the commissioner and her husband, Jim Chilton, own 2,000 acres of land near Arivaca, but graze their herd on 85,000 acres of leased public lands.

But God forbid an embattled lobo ever show its snout on that property. We can only hope there are no two-year-olds waiting to be snatched.