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California and the West

Wolves Get Help in Battling Enemies

Environment: Babbitt says U.S. is committed to reintroducing endangered animal to the wild.

November 17, 1998|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Less than a year after he presided over the release of wolves into the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt returned Monday in a more somber mood as he sought to revive a project that has been nearly destroyed by a series of unsolved shootings.

Only two of the 11 Mexican gray wolves released this year into the Apache National Forest are left. Four are known to have been shot. A fifth adult--last seen in mid-September--and a pup are also thought to be dead. Three others were returned to captivity earlier this year after they roamed outside the release area.

Of the surviving two, neither is female, eliminating the possibility of pups being born in the wild. The gunshot victims include the mother of the only pup born in the wild.

Bringing two more wolves--both females--with him, Babbitt on Monday condemned the killings and, while saying he does not know who is responsible, made clear that he sees local ranchers as the main enemies of wolf reintroduction. He vowed that the effort to reestablish the animals would not die and announced that state and federal law enforcement personnel would patrol the area where the wolves are being released.

"This is barbaric kind of stuff going on," Babbitt said in an interview. "The public wants the wolves. These are public lands, a part of every schoolchild's heritage. And this is how we treat them?"

"Cattle growers think they are entitled to produce the maximum possible number of cattle they can ship to the stockyards every fall, and they believe they are entitled to do this on public lands regardless of what the public wants from these lands," he said.

Hans Stewart, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist supervising the project, said that "the really sad part is that these wolves were showing every indication of adapting to the wilds. They were hunting and providing for their young. They were moving farther into the wilds and away from humans."

Babbitt said the shootings were the worst setback to befall the Clinton administration's wolf reintroduction efforts that began in Yellowstone Park three years ago. There, the wolves are thriving, although their presence is being challenged in a lawsuit brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation on behalf of ranchers.

The Mexican gray wolves released in Arizona are among the rarest land mammals in North America. There are only 187 left, all raised in captivity. However, there are enough wolves to keep the project alive for several more years, according to federal wildlife officials.

"We do have enough wolves to continue with releases of three or four family groups for the next five years," Stewart said.

Once native to the region, the wolves were shot, trapped or poisoned to the brink of extinction by the 1950s.

A $35,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the conviction of whomever is responsible for the latest killings, with the money coming from various sources, including the federal government, two environmental groups and Michael Blake, author of "Dances With Wolves".

Conviction for killing one of the endangered wolves carries a federal penalty of $100,000 and a year in prison.

Stewart said last week that the rewards had prompted a number of phone calls from people with tips.

Babbitt said Monday, however, that it is not clear whether the shootings were "the acts of one individual or several."

Babbitt pointed out that there have been no livestock losses in and around the wolf reintroduction area in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, although a rancher's dog was killed and a miniature horse was attacked by another wolf.

Local ranchers, who vigorously opposed the wolf reintroduction, said they cannot prove that the wolves were responsible for any recent livestock losses.

"We did lose a couple of calves," said Barbara Marks, a rancher who has been a spokesperson for people opposed to the wolf release.

"We just can't say what did it-- mountain lion, bear, coyote, wolf or a two-legged predator."

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