Rekindling the Fierce Green Fire
B.J. Bergman, Sierra, 82/5, Sept-Oct 1997
"The government spent millions to rid this country of wolves," fumed a spokesman for the New Mexico Cattlemen's Association last year. "Now they want to turn around and spend money to bring them back. It's a seven-million dollar boondoggle."
The cattleman was right on the first two counts. Despite predictable yowling from the livestock industry, most southwesterners thought the real boondoggle was the near-extermination of El Lobo in the first place. Now, in Arizona's Blue Range Primitive Area -- not far from where the young ranger Aldo Leopold, in a celebrated moment of revelation, saw the "fierce green fire" turn to frost in the eyes of a dying wolf -- they're taking steps to restore the precarious balance of nature.
The Mexican gray wolf, all but eradicated by the 1930s, is returning. Supporters view the reintroduction as the endangered species' last chance for survival. It's also a rare chance to reclaim a region whose once-rich diversity had seemed irretrievably lost.
"To have a healthy ecosystem you need some large predators," explains Sandy Bahr, a Sierra Club activist from Phoenix who has worked to get the Mexican wolf reintroduced in the Southwest. "We need to adapt to living with wolves, not vice versa."
The wolves, however, will definitely have some adjusting to do. Canis lupus baileyi, which once ranged freely in the Southwest and northern Mexico, hasn't been seen in the Arizona wilds for some 30 years. Since bottoming out at a population of 7 in 1960, the Mexican gray has been bred in zoos, and currently numbers around 150. The Arizona Game and Fish Department now expects three families (up to 15 animals) to be moved to acclimation pens in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest by year's end. Once the wolves get used to the forest environment -- which could take six months or longer for captive-bred creatures like these -- they'll be allowed to roam the Apache as well as the adjoining Gila National Forest, across the New Mexico border.
"We're trying to make the ecosystem whole again," says Tom Bauer, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Over the next decade, the agency hopes to see the region's wild wolf population expand to at least 100.
Not everyone is sanguine about the recovery plans. Siding with ranching and agribusiness interests, the governors of Arizona and New Mexico both opposed reintroduction; in addition to fears that wolves would prey on livestock, foes fretted over possible land-use restrictions. But years of relentless campaigning by conservationists helped rally broad support -- including that of a handful of local ranchers -- and won crucial backing from the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the nation's top wildlife manager.
"Without strong public support this never would have happened," says the Sierra Club's Bahr. She gives much credit to veteran Club activist Bobbie Holaday, who founded PAWs (Preserve Arizona's Wolves) to focus on wolf recovery, drawing on financial and volunteer support from the Club as needed. Also vital was the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, which has offered to compensate any ranchers whose livestock are killed by wolves. (Such instances have been rare around Yellowstone National Park, where wild Canadian wolves were relocated in 1995.)
The Mexican wolf's return to Arizona is "a wonderful step in the right direction," Bahr says. "But this is not the way we should be doing things. We shouldn't have to spend so much money, time, and resources to bring an animal back from near-extinction. We should be working to preserve intact ecosystems to begin with."
Spain's Wolf Wars
Charles Bergman, International Wildlife, Mar-Apr 1997
In a culture of indifference, a young biologist struggles to save a species in crisis
Have you seen any wolves near this pueblo lately?" Luis Mariano Barrientos Benito asks in rapid Spanish as he leans from the window of his muddy brown Land Rover.
The shepherd, or pastor, rises to the question as if it were irresistible bait. His face breaks into a nearly toothless, slightly conspiratorial grin. His darkly weathered skin, from years of exposure to the fierce Spanish sun, seems to break into a hundred wrinkles.
"Wolves?" he asks back. "Do you want to hunt them?"
It is early May in Castilla-Leon, the agricultural flatlands in north central Spain, and biologist Barrientos is looking for wolves. May is the pupping season and the beginning of a new research season. As Barrientos conducts his interview, he realizes that the news is not good. With his boyish face and eager manner, the 34-year-old wolf expert plays along, acting vaguely like a hunter. "Do they hunt wolves here?"
The idea of killing wolves gets the shepherd excited. He cannot quite contain himself. He begins to enact an imaginary drama right next to the Land Rover, sheep swirling around his legs. Suddenly, he spots an imaginary wolf prowling the edges of his flock. He crouches at the knees and stalks toward the invisible predator. Up comes his imaginary rifle. He aims. "If I see a wolf," he says by way of explanation, "I always will kill it."
Pow. He fires, and his performance ends. He smiles.
"Yes, yes," he continues, "they killed wolves here last fall. Two or three. You've got to kill wolves. Wolves kill sheep."
Luis Barrientos jots some notes and drives away from the shepherd. His usually playful brown eyes grow somber. "This is the wolf in Spain," he says, referring to a legal hunt and to a devastating illegal kill of a species that may be in decline. "The people hate it. It's a bad topic, and the wolf has a bad future. The war against the wolf continues."
This interview summarizes the predicament of the wolf in Spain. You don't have to spend much time in the field, speaking to shepherds and farmers and other locals, to realize that a centuries-old animosity toward wolves is still alive. The wolf must be the most hated, the most persecuted animal in history, despised primarily out of fear that it will kill livestock.
About 10 years ago, Barrientos watched a television documentary about wolves in Spain. It was made by Spain's first great wolf biologist, Rodriquez Fuentes, who did the bulk of his work in the 1970s. The show changed Barrientos' life, inspiring him to look for wolves himself in the fields around Valladolid, a city in Castilla-Leon lying about an hour and a half by freeway from Madrid.
Today, Barrientos interviews shepherds to narrow his search, then looks for tracks and other physical signs of wolf presence. He also watches for wolves patiently, inexhaustibly, for hours and days on end. This approach has given him a wealth of information on wolves in this region of Spain. He knows packs and their histories intimately. He has had more than 250 sightings of wolves. But this season, he's worried. He's not finding wolves. He suspects that hunters have killed a large segment of the wolf population in his study area.
The fate of wolves in northern Spain is a microcosm of the history of wolves in Europe. Estimates put the number of the animals in Spain at about 1,500, rising to perhaps 2,000 after pupping season. During this century, the range of the wolf in Spain has slowly shrunk. Once the wolf roamed through most of the Iberian peninsula, but it is now limited to the northern parts of the country, especially the mountainous and remote north coast. Still, 70 percent of all western European wolves live in Spain. Men like Barrientos feel an acute sense of responsibility to save this last large population in western Europe, to stem the historical tide against the wolf.
Saving the wolf will not be easy. A recent poll showed that more than 50 percent of rural people in Barrientos' study area believe the wolf should be exterminated altogether. Another 35 percent said the wolf should be "controlled" until very few survive. The rest were "indifferent." Not one respondent felt that the wolf was a valuable national asset and resource. And yet, attitudes in Castilla-Le0n are less severe than those held by people in the north, where shepherds will not even discuss wolves with biologists.
Like other biologists in Spain, Barrientos is afraid that the wolves are losing the war, their numbers declining. Take the wolves in this one area of northern Castilla-Le--n, on the nearly treeless border between the provinces of Palencia and Leon. Barrientos knows the four packs that have lived here, pursuing their lives on the outskirts of eight adobe pueblos, towns built out of mud and straw. Packs in Spain tend to be relatively small, composed of the parental pair, one or two young adults to help with raising the young, and the pups of the year. Barrientos estimates that the packs in this area of Castilla-Leon add up to about 30 to 35 wolves.
By late afternoon, after talking with at least 25 shepherds and farmers, Barrientos reviews his notes, tallying the wolf count. "Sixteen dead," he groans. "In the last few months, hunted by humans."
This grim number, perhaps half the area's wolves, only fuels his desire to find the survivors, and he keeps driving, looking for shepherds, trying to get reliable reports of recent sightings. He wants especially to see if he can find any wolves having pups. His round face is visibly agitated. "Something's wrong. Bad, very bad."
The legal wolf hunt is probably the single largest cause of wolf mortality in Spain. The season is set for autumn, when hunters use dogs to drive wolves from cover. Some northern provinces also hold a spring hunt. The seasons began in 1989, when a Royal Decree classified the wolf as a game animal, giving the species protection from uncontrolled hunting. In that year, hunters legally killed 309 wolves. This figure remains the most reliable on hand and, Barrientos believes, represents the number of wolves killed yearly.
The legal hunt on such a jeopardized species is problematic enough, Barrientos thinks, but many people feel justified in killing wolves illegally year round. Poison is commonly used. But the most disturbing form of poaching is what North American wolf-hunters used to call denning--locating pups in a den and killing them. About 25 percent of the wolves killed yearly in Spain are pups. For this reason, Barrientos is highly motivated to find wolves about to have pups. Estimates of the total illegal kill are hard to make, obviously, but biologists feel it pushes the true number of wolves taken by humans up to 500 to 700. It is a large number, perhaps larger than the recruitment of young every year.
Most hunters believe they are defending livestock against the depredations of a fearsome carnivore. National estimates for 1989, the most recent reliable data, put the livestock loss at about $1 million. About 75 percent of this loss occurs in the far northern autonomies of Cantabria and Asturias, where living conditions are quite different from those of the agricultural flatland. In the rugged mountains of the Cordillera Cantbrica, the campesinos release their livestock to roam free through the mountain slopes and valleys. Wolves in the mountains prey on roe deer, red deer, wild boar and rabbits. But they also take unguarded and easy-to-kill livestock. Some packs survive almost exclusively on livestock.
For Barrientos, however, these statistics prove that the virulent hatred toward the wolf runs to much deeper psychological levels than is suggested by an economic problem. In Castilla-Leon, Barrientos insists, the wolf does little damage. In all of Spain's wolf range, Barrientos says, wolf depredations account for only 2.5 percent of the total value of the livestock industry.
In the province of Palencia in 1989, 300 sheep and only 23 cattle were reported killed by wolves. In this domesticated landscape, sheep never graze unattended. They are accompanied by a shepherd and several dogs. The shepherd may well tote a rifle. Among the dogs there is often a huge mastiff, bred to fight wolves. Mastiffs come well above the waist of a medium-sized man and have large, powerful jaws. They also wear another local invention, the carlanca--a wide and wicked-looking collar studded with ominous spikes. When a wolf goes for the jugular of a dog wearing a carlanca, the wolf gets instead a mouthful of spikes that can so rip apart its mouth that it cannot eat.
Wolves are not killed here because they cause damage, says Barrientos. "It's from prejudice and persecution. It's a national disgrace. A barbarity."
The wolves in Castilla-Leon are less predators than scavengers, surviving largely on dead sheep and cows, but they also hunt boars and rabbits. Barrientos has even witnessed two wolves eat 26 topillos (small shrew-like rodents) in 45 minutes. They even eat garbage. The wolves have to be adaptable opportunists to survive the threats they face.
By late evening, through more interviews, Barrientos has zeroed in on one area with a reliable report of wolf sightings. The area looks good for wolves, and it reveals one of the most surprising aspects of the wolf's adaptability in Spain. The monotonous landscape of low rolling hills in Castilla-Leon has been given over almost entirely to cereal farming--wheat, barley and rye, especially. The countryside is a broad expanse of grain fields, dotted by open areas where the land is left fallow for a year or two to revitalize itself. Occasionally, rocky outcroppings, covered with pines and oaks, rise above the green wheat. These are called montes, though only a flatlander could think of them as mountains.
The wolves in Spain do not dig dens to have their pups, as they typically do in North America. Instead, they look for protected cover and have their pups above ground. In this breadbasket of Spain, often the safest place for the wolves to have young is not in the trees of the montes, but in the wheat fields themselves.
In the montes, the wolves leave many tracks, making them easy to follow. Dogs in particular frequently travel in the montes and will track wolves right to the pupping sites. But dogs rarely enter the cereal fields. So the wolves find a nice slope or draw in the middle of a vast field of wheat, with water nearby, good promontories to keep a lookout and, perhaps, a large bush, and there they raise their young.
Barrientos finds, opposite the wheat fields, a high place that commands a wide view. He prepares to watch for wolves as the lingering evening comes to a soft and beautiful close. "These people aren't stupid," he says. "They know wolves are breeding. They'll go get the babies."
Munching pistachios and maintaining a sharp alertness for the wolves, he watches at this spot until the evening is too dark to see. Nothing. This is how wolves are studied in Spain--the hard, labor-intensive way. Since the creature is viewed as nearly vermin, little money has been devoted to its study.
Barrientos works as a volunteer, because he likes wolves. He has no contract. Currently no wolves in Spain, for example, wear radio-collars, the method so central to the study of wolves in North America. Data on population, distribution, mortality and life history are essential to developing a scientific, national management plan for the Spanish wolf. Such data, along with increased funding for research, are the first great need for wolf conservation. Yet, the same Royal Decree that codified the wolf as a creature of the hunt handed over management responsibility to the individual autonomies and provinces, where local administrations are more sensitive to the vocal opinions of their sometimes rabidly anti-wolf constitutents.
The second crucial need of wolf conservation in Spain, according to a recent comprehensive wolf study, is a program to compensate shepherds for damages caused by wolves. The existing program is weak because it is left up to local autonomies, some of which choose not to pay out "indemnifications." About a fourth of such damages are compensated. Barrientos says the program should be expanded, so people no longer need to view the wolf as an economic competitor.
The attitudes of the people may change. More may come to appreciate Barrientos' love of the wolf, which seems to transcend even physical limits. Though he has seen no wolves in the wheat fields, though he has been going since 5:30 in the morning, he is not prepared to give up. He often sleeps on site in his Land Rover, amid a jumble of food and blankets and equipment, so he can be on the job early the next morning. That is his plan tonight.
But first, one last try--he will howl in the monte. He drives into the trees. In the glow of his flashlight, he sees fresh wolf tracks. He unleashes a long and practiced wolf howl into the clear night. Then another. And another. He listens intently after each howl. Finally, he hears a wolf howling faintly. No, two wolves. Their high-pitched tones are plaintive and wailing and unforgettable.
Barrientos answers, and the howls seem slowly to get closer. Soon, Barrientos is staring into the trees. In a barely audible whisper, he says, "Do you see the shapes of the wolves moving among the shadows?" At last he has found them. Wolves are moving about him in the dark.
Later, in his Land Rover, he pushes back his seat and gets ready to sleep, explaining why he is willing to dedicate himself to the preservation of the wolf. "When there are no wolves," he says, "something is lacking in the country. The wolf is so intelligent, so mythic. Even the long war against the wolves magnifies the wolf. The wolf is my therapy. It is my cure. I don't want to live anywhere, in any country, where there are no wolves."