Politics of the Wolf

Lobo program plods through a thicket of contention.

Compared to the political landscape, the science of releasing lobos into high deserts and alpine mountains around the Arizona-New Mexico border is a relative snap.

But that landscape may be shifting, at least in Arizona, as the new chairman of the state Game and Fish Commission challenges his group's open hostility to the wolf reintroduction program.

In the recent past, Commissioner Sue Chilton from Arivaca and former Commissioner Dennis Manning of Alpine have stoked rural anger against Mexican gray wolf recovery. They've led a board majority in attacking the project and this state's participation in it. (Game and Fish staffers are supporting players, providing crucial technical and monitoring assistance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

So to wolf recovery supporters, the ascension in January of Commissioner Mike Golightly to the chairman's bully pulpit--replacing the bellicose Manning--is reassuring. "I absolutely believe that wolves belong out there," says the Flagstaff businessman. "And I believe we've proven that it can happen."

Manning's term expired in January, and newly appointed Commissioner Joe Melton of Yuma has taken his place. Melton's position on wolf recovery isn't clear, and he didn't return a phone call seeking comment. Commissioner Hays Gilstrap of Phoenix hasn't been vocal about his position, but did vote for measures that could weaken recovery. And in past meetings, Commissioner Joe Carter of Safford has derided the program, blaming wolves for--among other depravities--running into cars and causing accidents.

Golightly is serving the last year of two five-year terms, and many are waiting to see how much leverage he can bring to bear on his colleagues. In his post, the chairman holds considerable control over scheduling issues for discussion at public meetings. And this power may be key to whether Arizona maintains its commitment to wolf reintroduction.

Meanwhile, the embattled program plods on as either a qualified success or a borderline failure, depending upon whom you ask. Four years after their initial release, wild Mexican gray wolves may number up to 30--with as many as six breeding pairs--in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which includes parts of Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Soon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to see a second generation of wild pups, marking a new chapter for the ambitious project.

That's the good news. The bad news: Plenty of folks in the 7,000 square-mile recovery still seem to hate the wolf--or at least what they consider the program's meddlesome government officials and environmentalists.

At an AGF Commission meeting last May in Safford, scores of rural Arizona and New Mexico residents gathered to denounce a project they say puts their lives and livelihoods at risk.

"I spent 14 days with a wolf in my backyard," Laura Schneberger angrily told the raucous crowd. Schneberger, whose family ranches in the Gila National Forest, said she spotted a wolf "ripping at one of my calves, and I couldn't get a hold of anyone to help. What am I supposed to do when something like this happens?"

The packed ballroom included an equal share of reintroduction fans, among them Michael Robinson, point man on wolf recovery for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Today, he says the wolf project is constantly sabotaged by rural agricultural interests and official capitulation. "The number of wolves in the wild here is actually declining. This is a control program masquerading as a reintroduction program, with the Fish and Wildlife Service just trying to put a happy face on things."

Robinson blames this decline on several factors, including the trapping and traumatizing of wolves as they are transferred from Arizona to New Mexico. He also says release area boundaries are too rigidly enforced and that wolves are often blamed for attacking livestock, when they're only scavenging carcasses left to rot by careless ranchers. Such incidents can lead to a wolf's removal from the wild.

But to Howard Hutchinson, the wolf represents a clear and present danger to rural dwellers. He's executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties, a property-rights outfit that recently filed an intent to sue the FWS over the agency's failure to control the allegedly rampant mating of wild wolves with domestic dogs.

Hutchinson says this legal action is only the latest spark of long smoldering anger over heavy-handed government wildlife programs. "Ranching has gotten along with predators ever since human beings domesticated livestock," he says. "The problem is not with the wolf--it's with the Fish and Wildlife Service."

He says the agency could have assuaged local resentment by directly involving county governments in wolf reintroduction efforts. "Had they gone that route, where people could have a little more confidence in the people that were administering the program, we wouldn't be having the problems we are today."

However, pro-wolf activists simply consider the reintroduction program a convenient target. "I've certainly thought about this a lot over the years, having received death threats in that part of the country," says Nina Fascione, director of carnivore conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

Despite her group's fund that compensates ranchers for livestock losses from wolves, she says the hostility remains. "Part of me feels that it's really age-old, ingrained attitudes about large carnivores. Another part of it is the attitude against federal oversight. Sometimes I think you could be reintroducing lady bugs and still get a backlash if it involves the government."

Reintroducing Mexican gray wolves is a collaborative effort between the FWS, USDA Wildlife Services, Arizona Game and Fish, the Turner Endangered Species Fund and a reluctant New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. (While officially opposing the project, N.M. Game and Fish still devotes one staffer to wolf monitoring and research tasks.)

Still, Brian Kelly of the FWS thinks the recovery program remains on target, despite negative comparisons to reintroduction efforts in the Northern Rockies, where wolf populations have rebounded with a fury. "I guess success is in the eye of the beholder," says the Mexican wolf program coordinator. "There's a perception out there that, 'My gosh, the Northern Rockies wolves are doing so well, what's wrong with the Mexican gray wolf program?' But I think our wolves are doing well."

He says a different yardstick is needed to measure Mexican gray wolf recovery. "The Northern Rockies had wild wolves that had already lived in an environment very similar to the one they were reintroduced to. They knew exactly what to do."

By contrast, "We're taking wolves that for many generations have been raised in captivity. And they need to be reminded what to do, and relearn what to do."

That process takes patience and time--precious commodities in a region where reintroduction opponents remain bitter and vociferous. But time may not be the side of lobo opponents, who find themselves increasingly outnumbered by urban newcomers who, according to polls, overwhelming support wolf recovery.

At the Safford meeting, AGF commissioners chastised the FWS for not fully addressing rural concerns and set the stage for further wolf discussion at a future meeting. These days, Chairman Golightly isn't sure whether he can block agenda items leading to direct vote on the state's continued involvement in wolf recovery.

Nor does he dismiss the lingering animosity among many rural residents. "I know that feelings are still strong over there (in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area)," he says. "But in my mind, it comes down to this: How hard do we twist someone's arm, to say, 'Look, this is what's going to happen, in spite of yourselves?'"