Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 1330
v26, n1 (Winter 2004), 123-144

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The Debate over El Lobo: Can Historians Make a Difference?
Marsha L. Weisiger
Editor's Comments
Weisiger combines a concise but thorough history-to-date of Mexican wolf reintroduction with an insider's blow-by-blow of a conference on wolves, and in the process makes a strong argument for a respectful collaboration of stakeholders at the local level as the most promising approach to resolving the social and economic issues surrounding wolf recovery -- JM

In February 2003, historians, wolf-experts, ranchers, environmental activists, and some two hundred members of the general public gathered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to discuss the past, present, and future of the Mexican gray wolf. "Leopold Forum: El Lobo" explored the history of wolf extirpation in the early twentieth century and the recent contested effort to reintroduce wolves into the Southwest, under the Endangered Species Act. The program included keynote addresses by a historian, a wolf biologist, and a ranching spokesperson; a series of panel presentations; a dinner featuring an environmental activist as speaker; and a roundtable discussion. A private breakfast-discussion among the stakeholders, facilitated by a professional conflict negotiator, followed the conference. The article narrates the history of wolf extirpation and reintroduction, and describes the logistics of organizing the conference and its outcome.
In February 2003, historians, wolf experts, ranchers, environmental activists, and some two hundred members of the general public gathered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to discuss the history and future of the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). Titled Leopold Forum: El Lobo, the symposium grew out of a belief that an understanding of environmental history can help inform public policy....
....Environmental historians tell often ironic and complicated stories about the unintended ecological and social consequences of environmental decisions, stories I hoped would encourage a more constructive dialogue about the controversial federal program to reintroduce wolves into the forested lands of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, initiated in 1998. In months spent discussing wolf reintroduction with scientists, policymakers, and especially environmentalists and ranchers, it struck me that many of those shaping the public discourse viewed the world in dualistic terms. It was a depressingly familiar, mutually exclusive equation that pitted wild nature against human enterprise....History tells us that humans are deeply entangled within the ecological web we call the "natural world." We ignore that truth at our peril. The trick is in learning to develop a sustainable relationship with the world in which we live, one that comprehends humans and nonhumans nature as interdependent members of the same community.
In thinking about the reintroduction program, I realized that those of us who cared about wolves could not ignore the likelihood that their southwestern territories would overlap with ranch lands for the foreseeable future. Southwestern ranchers graze their cattle on the public domain, and their deeded lands lie adjacent to and even within the national forests where reintroduced wolves now roam....The team of biologists who evaluated the reintroduction program's initial progress observed that success would require "a systematic and rigorous approach to wolf recovery that integrates the social and economic aspirations of humans with the ecological necessities of wolves." This quest for coexistence, most certainly, will not be easy. Most of the area's ranchers have attempted to thwart the program at every turn with lawsuits and lobbying. For their part, environmentalists have often scorned cattle growers, dismissing them as a dying breed, even though ranchers exert a powerful political force in New Mexico, remain symbolically and often economically important to rural counties, and help maintain open space on the peripheries of national forests.
I had no illusions that a history-centered conference would resolve this impasse, nor that it would solve the problems plaguing wolf reintroduction. I simply hoped that it would add complexity and nuance to the ongoing public conversation regarding the history of wolf extirpation, the science undergirding reintroduction, and the economic impacts of the program on local ranchers. There were other goals, too. I wanted environmental activists to recognize that they must pay attention to ranchers' often-legitimate concerns or risk the demise of the wolf reintroduction program. At the same time, I hoped ranchers might come to understand that wolves play an important -- albeit poorly understood -- role in forest ecosystems and offer the potential for creating healthier forests and better habitat for deer, elk, and other animals. Some ecologists, for example, theorize that the effects of predation by wolves and other large carnivores on deer and elk cascade downward through the ecosystem, increasing the diversity of plant and animal communities in complex ways....
I named the forum in honor of the conservationist Aldo Leopold, who began his illustrious career in the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona at the beginning of the twentieth century....
....In his essay, "Thinking Like a Mountain," Leopold told a parable that environmentalists frequently invoke to buttress the frameworks of their own environmental ethics. It is a tale of tragic insight and conversion that has become holy writ for an important segment of the environmental movement, especially for the movement to reintroduce Mexican wolves into southwestern forests. The year was 1909, and Leopold was working for the U.S. Forest Service, leading a timber reconnaissance crew in the Blue Range of Arizona's Apache National Forest. He and a crew member were eating lunch on a rimrock when they saw what they thought was a doe fording the river below them. Soon they realized that the animal was an adult wolf, followed by a frolicking pack of grown pups. The two men grabbed their rifles and, as Leopold later recalled, "in a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy." They managed to cripple one pup and mortally wound the mother. Then, as Leopold narrated the story:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
In watching the fire die in the wolf's eyes, Leopold later wrote, he realized that he had until then failed to grasp the interdependency between wolves, deer, and mountains. The flickering light also had illuminated a profound moral: all of the world's glorious creatures have a purpose on this earth, whether we understand it or not. It may even be that the wildness that wolves embody is valuable for its own sakes. "Perhaps," Leopold concluded, "this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men."
Leopold told this story as an epiphany, one that transformed his view toward killing wolves and other predators. And yet Leopold did not immediately perceive the ecological value of large carnivores as he watched the green fire die. He did not cease hunting wolves in 1909. Instead, six years later, in 1915, he organized the New Mexico Game Protective Association, an organization that called for the complete eradication of predators and worked with the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the Forest Service, and the New Mexico Game Department to extirpate wolves. Their efforts were a whopping success....
....[Leopold's] "epiphany" evolved over a period of years from the mid-1920s through the early 1940s, when he finally recorded his memories of the dying wolf and the last embers of the fierce green fire. In the intervening years, he had witnessed the effects of wolf eradication. "I have watched," he wrote,
the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails....I have seen every edible tree defoliated....In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage....I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.
....Leopold came to value wolves because the Biological Survey had largely extirpated the Mexican wolf from the Southwest, in response to demands from ranchers and, later, sport-hunters. The number of sheep and cattle grazing the area had boomed in the 1880s....By 1980, as the geographer Conrad Bahre has observed, "the entire region must have looked like one huge cattle ranch." Those cattle had begun dying in droves during an extended drought from 1891 through 1893, and their carcasses may have stimulated an increase in the wolf population. At the same time, drought and overgrazing had brought a decrease in the numbers of deer and other prey. More wolves and fewer deer had meant more livestock depredations, although the amount of actual damages remains unclear. Most ranchers had assumed that wolves were the culprits when they lost livestock, but by 1923, as the numbers of wolves plunged, cattlemen came to realize that coyotes had been largely to blame. Even then, conservationists remained convinced that the extirpation of wolves was crucial to the conservation of deer and other game animals, and no one yet lamented the wolf's demise.
The first decades of the twentieth century had witnessed an all-out war against wolves in the Southwest. Wolf predation had posed the biggest problem in forests, where the lobos made their dens and arid-lands ranchers seasonablly pastured their stock. Sheep and cattle ranchers had convinced the Forest Service to battle wolves in the forest reserves, especially after the agency started charging grazing fees in 1907. That year, the Forest Service killed 359 lobos in Arizona and New Mexico, and local stockmen and their bounty hunters killed countless more. The Biological Survey assumed responsibility for predator control in 1914, and....hired a dozen trappers for the Predatory Animal and Rodent Control branch (PARC). This effort peaked in 1920, when PARC trappers killed 110 wolves. In all, PARC eliminated more than 500 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico betwen 1920 and 1925, and ranchers poisoned untold numbers with strychnine sulfate, after which the lobo population plummeted. A few packs remained, and wolves continued to drift up from the wilds of northern Mexico....By the mid 1950s, with the aid of a highly lethal poison known as Compound 1080 (Sodium Fluroacetate), Mexican gray wolves stood on the brink of extinction.
The last lobo in the southwestern United States died in 1976. That animal likely wandered up from Mexico into Aravaipa Canyon, an extraordinary wilderness area in Arizona that the private conservation group Defenders of Wildlife had recently acquired. Surely, if there was any moment in the twentieth century in which a wild wolf might have found protection, this was it. A private trapper killed this last lone wolf and, so the story goes, collected a $500 bounty from local stockmen.
That same year, the federal government listed the Mexican wolf as an endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)....Because no wild wolves remained in the Southwest, in 1977 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the ESA, hired Roy McBride, a veteran trapper. He brought back from the states of Durango and Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, six lobos, including one pregnant female. Three of these animals (plus the newborn pup), along with others from two lineages already held in zoos, became the breeding stock for the reintroduction program. Ironically, those trapped wolves may have been the last to have been living in the wild. There have been no confirmed reports of wild wolves in either the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico since McBride's expedition.
Although the idea of reintroducing lobos had widespread support in the urban Southwest, those who lived and worked near prime wolf habitat largely opposed the program. Indeed, ranchers' opposition helped stall wolf reintroduction in the Southwest for more than two decades....
....[V]arious local and national environmental organizations filed a series of lawsuits and conducted a grass-roots lobbying campaign to spur the Fish and Wildlife Service into action. Finally, in 1998 the agency released eleven Mexican wolves from their acclimatization pens into Leopold's old stomping grounds, the Blue Range of Arizona's Apache National Forest....Within twelve months,  three wolves had been shot dead, another had been hit by a car, and the whereabouts of one was unknown. Since that first year, sixty-seven more captive-raised wolves have been released, another eleven have died from gunshot, and four more have been run over. Nine others are back in captivity, punished for gravitating toward livestock or humans, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has shot one wolf for persistently stalking one rancher's herd. All in all, twenty-four radio-collared wolves (including eight breeding pairs) now roam the Apache and Gila forests, an area covering 7,000 square miles, and there are at least thirty, perhaps forty, more running wild, including those born in the wild, those released as pups without radio collars, and those who have lost their collars and, therefore, cannot be tracked. Already, sixteen litters have been conceived and born in the wild, including two second-generation wild litters. Once natural reproduction in the wild is sufficient to sustain population growth -- which the Fish and Wildlife Service currently defines as one hundred free-roaming animals -- the government will judge the recovery effort successful.
Ranchers continue to oppose the reintroduction program....In part, they believe that environmentalists are mostly using the ESA as a tool to push them off the public domain. Indeed, the Mexican wolf is only one of several endangered species protected on public lands within the recovery area, forcing ranchers to alter or restrict their livestock operations. Many also see the reintroduction program as a pernicious symbol of long-hated federal interference in the local economy.
At the same time, some of the environmentalists who demanded wolf reintroduction criticize the Fish and Wildlife Service's intensive management of the animals. The agency traps and relocates wolves found hanging around ranches or straying outside the boundaries of the official recovery area, and in a few instances wolves have been killed or maimed in the process. Since wolves are highly social animals who bond in packs and carry cognitive maps of their range, relocation disrupts pack structure and normal territorial behavior, and thus diminishes their chances for survival. Environmentalists also criticize the spatial limitations that the Fish and Wildlife Service has imposed on the reintroduction effort. In response to the New Mexico State Game Commission's opposition to wolf reintroduction, the agency divided the recovery area into primary and secondary zones. Field biologists release wolves only into the Arizona section and allow them to disperse into New Mexico; ironically, only those wolves with a history of "management problems" can be re-released directly into New Mexico's expansive Gila Forest, most of which is designated wilderness. As the wolf packs increase in the Apache National Forest, it becomes difficult for wolves to find unclaimed territory, resulting in conflict between packs. It makes ecological sense to release -- not just re-release -- wolves directly into the Gila Forest, which offers the best habitat, much of it free of livestock. Politics stand in the way.
To facilitate a better understanding of all of these matters, I created a two-day symposium, designed as an interdisciplinary "public conversation"....
....As nearly two hundred members of the public assembled in the auditorium at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, tension electrified the air, no doubt exacerbated by the presence of security guards on either side of the stage. The museum, a co-sponsor of the forum, had received complaints from anonymous ranchers for hosting a discussion of wolf reintroduction, protests that sounded to some staff members like threats. And one of the speakers, a rancher and attorney, expressed fear of violence from "wolf-huggers." The museum responded by hiring extra guards....
As environmentalists wearing pro-wolf tee-shirts took their seats in the theater, and ranchers in cowboy regalia milled about in the back, I was...glad that I had taken several other specific measures to promote a reasoned discussion. From the outset of planning this event, I had recognized that bringing together "people who revile wolves, people who revere wolves, and everyone in between" was freighted with danger. Stories of fistfights at a similar Montana forum and shouting matches at meetings in the heart of New Mexico's wolf country made me well aware that I...could be setting my own trap.
....The keynote session featured Susan Flader, historian and biographer of Aldo Leopold, and author of Thinking Like a Mountain; L. David Mech, the country's foremost wolf biologist and author of The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species; and Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. Flader's thoughtful sketch of Leopold's career and his famous epiphany ... emphasized that Leopold had championed a grassroots approach to environmental policy that grew out of communities of local stakeholders, not out of the offices of federal policymakers. Leopold's story resonated with people on either side of the rancher-environmentalist divide....Mech stressed the success of wolf recovery in other areas of the country and showed a riveting videotape of two wolves singling out and taking down a lame elk. Cowan challenged the audience to consider "who benefits from wolf reintroduction?" Her own response: urbanites who want to know that wolves are "out there" but don't have to live with them.
The second day...began with surprisingly philosophical remarks by the panel of historians, who set the tone for the day. Thomas Dunlap, the author of Saving America's Wildlife, drew lessons from Ernest Thompson Seton, the naturalist, founder of the Boy Scouts, and author of the short story, "Lobo, King of the Carrumpaw." Dunlap admonished the audience that Seton's discovery upon killing a wolf, that "we and the beasts are kin," holds an analogous moral: pro-wolf and anti-wolf antagonists need to cultivate community, listen to one another, and discover local solutions. The next two historians targeted, in turn, those who revered wolves and those who reviled them. Louis Warren, author of The Hunter's Game, offered environmentalists a cautionary tale. After describing the ways in which early-twentieth-century hunting regulations in New Mexico had dispossessed Native American subsistence hunters, he ended by asking us to think about the way we would like this story to end: with dispossessed ranchers, or with ranchers and wolves both living on the land. Then Dan Flores, author of Horizontal Yellow, took aim at ranchers, framing his remarks with a sketch about the cowboy artist and ranching icon Charlie Russell, who throughout his legendary career used the wolf as a symbol of the Wild West .... Pointing out that the history of wolves in the West spanned back 20,000 years and that the wolf-less West amounted to a brief, unnatural anomaly, Flores celebrated the wolves' return and concluded that "we're living a great historic event," one even Charlie Russell could only dream of.
....Environmentalists and ranchers squared off in the next two panels. Two of the three environmentalists focused on the need to create and enhance financial incentives to mitigate the economic impact of wolves on livestock operations. Wolf tourism, noted one, could benefit local backcountry outfitters (many of whom are also ranchers) and add ecotourism revenue to the rural economy, just as similar programs have done in Minnesota and Idaho.
The fireworks began, however, with Michael Robinson, the Mexican wolf coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity, and Laura Schneberger, a rancher and the president of the Gila Permittees Association, which represents those with grazing permits in the Gila National Forest. They represented the extremes of the debate, but each expressed important viewpoints. Robinson blamed ranchers for failing to remove cattle carcasses from the public domain, thereby encouraging wolves to develop a taste for beef and ultimately to prey on cattle. He also sharply criticized the Fish and Wildlife Service for "running amok" in its effort to control the dispersal of wolves beyond the recovery area in an effort to placate ranchers. Schneberger charged that ranchers were not being compensated for all their losses and expressed fears that wolves would attack children and pets. She concluded that "the Mexican wolf reintroduction program is proving that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it....In the end, we're going to have to destroy the wolves again."
Other ranchers echoed Schneberger's themes. Hugh B. McKeen, a powerful political figure in Catron County and a third-generation rancher in the Gila National Forest, whose family has grazed cattle there since 1888, argued that the existing unhealthy forests do not support sufficient prey for wolves -- except cattle. Darcy Ely, too, claimed that cattle have become the wolves' chief prey, an argument she illustrated with gory pictures of her mauled and dead livestock, snapshots that underscored her own vehement objection to allowing wolves into her "neighborhood."
Not all ranchers oppose the reintroduction of wolves, although those who don't are a distinct minority, loudly vilified by some of their neighbors. Jan and Will Holder, who market "wolf-friendly" organic beef, and Jim Winder, a fourth-generation stock-grower and a leader in the Quivera Coalition, an organization that promotes ecologically sound livestock management, argued that the presence of wolves encourages better livestock management and thus improves range conditions....Winder ended the ranchers' panel on a philosophical note. He sympathized with his fellow ranchers who find it difficult to handle the additional costs that come with wolves, costs that are not reimbursed, such as monitoring livestock, documenting depredation, and attending meeting after meeting with federal bureaucrats. But he argued that ranchers must quit living in the past, adapt to changing circumstances, and focus on being good land stewards.
....The afternoon's highlights came from David Brown, biologist and author of The Wolf in the Southwest, and Michael Phillips, the dynamic director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Brown questioned whether captive wolves could be reintroduced successfully, raised doubts about the genetic distinctiveness of the "Mexican" subspecies, and proposed reintroducing wild wolves from Yellowstone. If wild wolves were not used, he predicted failure. Phillips absolutely disagreed. He called for the expansion of the program with the ultimate goal of restoring the entire length of the North American wolf's range from Canada to Mexico. Exhorting those who revere wolves to make their voices heard in the halls of Congress, he quoted the late environmentalist David Brower: "Politicians are like weather vanes and our job is to make the wind blow."....
....Hank Fischer, the featured dinner speaker, echoed the theme that Susan Flader first raised with her story of Aldo Leopold's belief in the wisdom of locally conceived conservation policy. Formerly with the Defenders of Wildlife in Montana and now special projects coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, Fischer ... challenged his listeners to stop the polarized debate, give up the lawsuits and counter-suits, and collaborate on a grassroots recovery plan, one that envisions coexistence between wolves and ranchers. "We now seem locked in some Greek tragedy, Sisyphus eternally rolling his rock up the hill," Fischer observed. "Conservation today is a never ending game of check and checkmate, endless confrontation where no one seems to get what he wants." Leopold, he noted, had championed a better way. Like Leopold, Fischer advocated the creation of citizen management committees representing a cross-section of interests, which, he argued, would result in more creative solutions to conflicts and better conservation....
....I decided to give historian Louis Warren the last word. He began by considering the historical narratives he had heard over the course of the day....History, he continued, tells us that we can find solutions to the conflict between wolves and ranchers, if only we think creatively. For example, people once believed it would be impossible to restore wetlands for ducks while simultaneously preserving farms. "And we've got them both today, through a compensation program, through big farm subsidies, through lots of things." History, he reminded us, provides us with models for success, as well as for failure.
Then Warren...raised a set of profound questions. Would we use wolves to dispossess ranchers, just as we had used hunting laws to dispossess Native Americans a century ago? Would we finally exterminate every last Mexican wolf? Or would we find some path in between?
Knowing that in a public forum all participants would likely hold fast to their positions, I had also scheduled a private discussion for breakfast the next morning....
....We...began to list solutions that we might agree upon: grassroots decisionmaking, better communications between federal officials and ranchers, rewards for ranchers' conservation efforts, a federally funded compensation fund. The group later circulated a summary of these recommendations by email and forwarded them to the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with minority opinions. A memorable moment came when a member of the Fish and Wildlife Service asked Schneberger if she would stand by a statement she had made the night before. Challenged by Robinson...Schneberger had endorsed a proposal to stop removing wolves who stray outside the official recovery area, except in response to actual behavioral problems. Schneberger replied that she, indeed, favored such a policy change, and Cowan, the stock growers association director, seconded the motion. Not all of the ranchers agreed, but for a moment it felt like the earth had moved.
....Certainly, in the short run, the Leopold Forum did nothing to bridge the gap between those who revere wolves and those who revile them. In the months after the conference, the Gila Permittees Association, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, and other livestock groups have filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the reintroduction program dead in its tracks. More troubling, at least seven wolves have died of apparent foul play within the seven months since the conference. That looks like powerful evidence of failure. And yet not long after the conference, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which opposes wolf reintroduction, entered into a cooperative agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor wolves. Unlike in the past, the tribe seeks to determine whether wolves have actually been responsible for livestock losses, instead of simply assuming that they are. Most important, over the course of the forum, the discussion seemed to have moved from the question of "whether" wolves should be reintroduced toward "how" to make it work in a landscape where ranchlands and wild lands commingle. It was a small step, but it felt like progress.
....Interdisciplinary discussions that bring multiple perspectives to bear on a given problem have the power to challenge, corroborate, and thereby clarify competing truths. They can help us to see that fostering an ethical relationship with nature, one that respects both the human and the nonhuman members of the biotic community, is not as simple as it seems. By bringing together the perspectives of history, science, advocacy, and the lived experience of those most affected by environmental policies, we can contemplate the paths that brought us here and reimagine the road ahead....
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