Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner



David Muench's National Parks





 


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Wolves are a dividing line. On one side are people who believe wolves belong in the ecosystems where they evolved; on the other, people who hate them.

In Thinking Like A Mountain, Aldo Leopold describes the death of a mountain overbrowsed by deer, when there is no predator on the deer. He describes the death of deer by starvation, once they have decimated the mountain. What I hear him saying is that it is the life of Nature that is ". . . the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men."

On July 3, the Albuquerque Journal reported the deaths of two Mexican gray wolves –the alpha male of the Hawk’s Nest Pack, shot to death in eastern Arizona, and the alpha male of the San Mateo Pack, found dead under suspicious circumstances in New Mexico. A third wolf, the collared alpha male of the Paradise pack on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, has been missing since mid-April. The July 17th Journal reported yet another wolf shot in Arizona.

Mexican gray wolves are the most endangered mammals in America. Extirpated from their historic range in New Mexico and Arizona by the 1900s (and northern Mexico by the 1980s), a breeding program, consisting of five animals captured in Mexico in the late ‘70s produced the 13 wolves reintroduced into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in 1998. The Recovery Area, some of the wildest country in the lower states, spans 4.4 million acres in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and the Apache National Forest in Arizona, a region twice the size of Yellowstone. Biologists expected a self-sustaining population of 100 wolves by the end of 2006. Instead, after many suspicious deaths and disappearances, there were 42 in the recovery area by the end of 2009. There are fewer now. This program is not working very well.

Wolf haters are nothing new. We saw them in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana when wolves were restored to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995. We still see them. After wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List, they were legally hunted. (The great news is that on Aug. 5, wolves regained federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.) Last year, outdoor retailers Cabela’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse sponsored "predator derbies" in which entrants vied to kill the most wolves (and other predators) in two days. Three points for a dead wolf. Entry fees went to support anti-wolf lobbyists. All the hunts, without basis in science, are really political hunts. Outrage is an appropriate emotion here.

Wolf haters remain invested in outdated ideas; ideas rampant when fearful settlers, believing only killing predators would make the country safe, began ranching on land families still hold; ideas rampant before we understood how healthy land requires all its components. Wolf haters believe that wolves on the ground means government interference in their lives, and limits on how they use "their" land, much of which is public land. They do not want wolves because wolves undermine erroneous beliefs held for so long, they call them truths.

At a wolf hearing in Albuquerque a few years ago, a preacher from Catron County, perhaps the most rabidly anti-wolf region of New Mexico, said that if wolves were not eliminated, they would eat children waiting for the school bus. (None have been eaten.)

An old friend who lives a great distance from any wolf populations, wrote me his opinion that "ranchers will simply not let wolves return; and there is no force or will in our country to enforce protection of the weak against the taxpaying and Voting Strong."

Maybe. But I pay taxes. I vote. And I am not alone.

All ranchers do not automatically hate wolves, but some are reluctant to risk being ostracized and losing the support of neighbors. One of the great goods of life in the west is that, if you are in trouble, you can count on your neighbor.

Yet, a few brave souls do speak. Rancher Wilma Jenkins recently wrote the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. " . . . I am pro wolf. We feel that any species lost—whether predator, prey, bug, or plant—will have repercussions in the whole ecosystem. But we don’t manage for wolves. We manage for overall health. Good water and good forage means more prey species which can support more predators. And we must remember that people are one of the animals who live in this ecosystem. . . . Since we have eliminated some species, like wolves, we may have to reintroduce them into the ecosystem. . . . There is no reason that people and other predators cannot coexist. We need to find a way to make this coexistence the rule instead of an abnormality."

"In case you are wondering how we make a living ranching . . .", Ms. Jenkins continued, "We have a small scale ecotourism business and conduct classes in birding, art, photography, erosion control, wilderness survival . . . we do custom ranch vacations, trail rides, cattle drives, teambuilding challenges, and family retreats. This not only helps pay the bills, it gets people involved and learning. We as a culture are raising a generation of people with no connection to the land." (For information on programs at the Jenkins’ Double Circle Ranch, go to www.doublecircleranch.com.)

Ranchers often say they are barely hanging on, yet many refuse to entertain the ideas Ms. Jenkins presents, refuse to look at how having wolves in the neighborhood might provide them additional livelihood in the form of tourism--as it has in Montana since wolves were restored to Yellowstone. These days, tourism is often a surer source of income in the west than cows.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a grassroots environmental organization advocating for the state’s wildlands and wildlife, is exploring the concept of a Yellowstone of the Southwest. The Greater Gila Ecoregion of southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona is home to one of the largest, most intact ecosystems in the Southwest. At the heart of the region are the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas, and the Blue Range, America's last remaining primitive area, comprising, together, more than one million acres. Surrounding these core areas are an additional 1.5 million acres of wild public land that is currently unprotected.

In this area larger than Yellowstone, plentiful elk and deer can support a healthy wolf population. NMWA envisions the possibility of places for wolf watching, as we have in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. If, indeed, wolves were established enough here, safe enough here, that they could be viewed from the distance of a road as in Yellowstone, tourist dollars would flow into surrounding communities, as they have in communities edging Yellowstone.

Is it possible? There are so many hurdles, so many adamant people who need a way to understand the good this could do for their communities, for their own livelihoods, for the ecosystem that supports not only wildlife, but human life as well.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance recently issued a wolf stamp to support Mexican wolf habitat restoration and public education about wolves. All proceeds go to these programs. The stamp, designed by New Mexico artist Virginia Maria Romero, is the first of a series to be issued over the coming years. To buy a stamp, or for more information, contact www.nmwild.org.

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Rudner