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California and the West

Rare Wolves Reintroduced in Arizona

Wildlife: But they must learn to hunt and stay out of trouble with angry ranchers, one of whom compared the release to 'legalizing bank robbery.'

January 27, 1998|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

APACHE NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. — Home at last, a tawny-coated, 10-month-old Mexican wolf bounded from her cage Monday onto a snowy hilltop here in the White Mountains, where her ancestors lived before they were all but wiped out by a society that did not want to share the wilderness with wild animals.

The wolf pup was quickly joined by her mother after their cages were opened by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and a group of state and federal wildlife officials. A wary papa stayed in his cage while the mother and daughter loped around a temporary fenced enclosure, where the wolves will be confined until they are ready for life in the wild.

They soon will be joined by eight more wolves in the program to reintroduce the animals in eastern Arizona, the latest step in a wildlife experiment that has been both hugely popular and bitterly contested every place it has been attempted--from coastal North Carolina to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.

The Arizona wolves are facing the adventure of their lives. Unlike ones moved to Yellowstone three years ago from the wilds of Canada, these were bred in captivity.

"It is going to be the biggest wolf conservation challenge in this country," said Mike Phillips, a former National Park Service wildlife biologist who directed wolf release projects in North Carolina and Yellowstone.

"You are taking animals who are new to the wilds, putting them in the midst of a landscape as perilous as Yellowstone."

The wolves will be kept for several weeks in the enclosure, which is about one-third of an acre, eating food and water that is brought to them. Then a section of the fence will be removed and they will be on their own in a wilderness twice the size of Yellowstone--the forested mountains and canyons of the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila National forests.

An Arizona native, Babbitt described the occasion as an "incredible homecoming" for the wolves.

"Growing up I fished and camped in these mountains, but I always felt something was missing. The countryside seemed haunted by the spirit of el lobo."

But for many nearby ranchers, who already contend with livestock attacks by mountain lions, coyotes and black bears, the wolf reintroduction represents a slap in the face by a federal government that puts wildlife preservation ahead of the economic well-being of rural people.

As the wolves were being released from their cages, a small crowd of demonstrators gathered 20 miles away in the town of Alpine, holding placards that read "Don't Import Wolves. Deport Environmentalists," "Hello, Wolf. Goodbye Hunting" and "Leave Your Wolves in D.C."

At a news conference at the wolf release site, Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who comes from a ranching family, said he understands some people's misgivings.

"We will have to keep a very close watch on this program," he said, a reference to the team of state and federal wildlife experts who will track the animals--with the help of radio transmitters in their collars--and move them if they stray too close to livestock.

The wolves are being released now, during their mating season, in the hope that they will be preoccupied in the coming months with finding dens for newborns and less likely to get into trouble.

To reestablish themselves, the wolves will have to master ancient hunting skills. But they'll put themselves at risk if they make a habit of killing the easiest prey--the thousands of head of cattle that graze in the national forests.

Wolves that kill livestock on private property can be shot legally if they are caught in the act. On public land, a marauding wolf is not a legal target until after wildlife officials have first tried to capture the animal and move it away from livestock.

If past experience is any guide, the wolves might stay within 20 miles of their pens--or might end up 200 miles away. Their minders will track them by foot, car and plane. Wildlife biologists estimate that it could take eight to 10 years for the wolves to reproduce enough to reach a population of 100, the goal of the project, which is expected to cost $6 million to $7 million.

With fewer than 200 left, all in captivity, Mexican wolves are among the rarest land mammals in North America.

Such wolves once roamed the Southwest from the Texas panhandle to central Arizona and from the Grand Canyon as far south as Mexico City. But they were mostly gone by the 1950s, having been trapped and poisoned as part of a federal predator control program launched to protect livestock.

Establishing a stable population may require several releases, as it has in Yellowstone, where the number of wolves has grown from 30 to 100. Those wolves have helped reduce by half an overabundant coyote population, leading to an increase in the number of rodents and other species--from eagles to bears--that eat the rodents.

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