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Wildlife Reintroduction May Be Species' Last Chance

Environment: Return of wolves to Arizona-New Mexico border has angered ranchers. Other animal-restoration efforts face setbacks.

September 22, 2002|PAULINE ARRILLAGA | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

BEAVERHEAD, N.M. — Mike Miller watched from a rocky bluff as the female went down. The dart pierced her hip, its sedative seeping into her bloodstream. Half an hour later, after a pursuit along a canyon wall, the gunner clipped the male in the neck.

He felt a rush of elation.

The cowboy had ridden to Railroad Canyon in the thick of the Gila National Forest to watch as the feds swept down in their helicopter and scooped up the Pipestem wolves, named for a mountain near where they were first set free.

He had come to celebrate one small victory in his and his neighbors' war against "el lobo" -- sworn enemy of the cattle rancher for as long as there have been ranches in the West. He had, unabashedly, come to gloat.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf to the wilderness that connects Arizona and New Mexico, ranchers warned: Wolves and people cannot coexist, and wolves and cattle are a lethal combination.

This pair alone, Miller believes, killed 19 calves on the outfit he manages, although federal officials confirmed only two deaths. Some calves were too far gone to say whether a wolf was the culprit.

They had come within a stone's throw of his home and his kids, terrifying his wife. "I can handle the bears and the mountain lions and the bobcats," Debbie Miller said. "When you see them, they take off. They're scared of you. These wolves, they're not scared. And that's what scares me."

So on a quiet spring morning, after months of pursuing the marauding predators, trappers with the federal wildlife agency arrived to return them to captivity.

"I was glad it was done with," Mike Miller recalled, although his relief was short-lived.

This summer, a month after the Pipestem pair were removed, nine more wolves were released in the wilderness straddling the border. At least 21 roam the pine-studded woods, and an unknown number have been born in the wild. Others could be freed down the road.

Sooner or later, this cowboy knows, "el lobo" will be back.

*

It is considered their best chance at survival and, sometimes, their last. When habitat restoration alone won't sustain them, when there are so few left that the odds of natural recovery are slim, establishing a new population of animals in the wild becomes the lifesaving solution for many of the nation's most imperiled species.

"It's emergency-room treatment," said Ed Bangs, who oversees restoration of the gray wolf to the northern Rocky Mountains. "You've got a patient that's dying and you want to save their life. You do everything you can. And then you wheel in the next patient."

Wildlife reintroduction has become an integral part of efforts to protect and restore endangered species. Without it, the California condor would likely have vanished from the sky, the black-footed ferret disappeared from its prairies.

There would be no red wolves in refuges along the coast of North Carolina, nor gray wolves for tourists to view in Yellowstone National Park. Because of Bangs' program, that species is recovered in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and could be removed from federal protection in those states next year.

But success stories are often overshadowed by setbacks. Whether by gun barrel or bulldozer, man rid the land of these creatures decades ago, and man remains one of the biggest roadblocks to restoration.

In California, commercial fishermen went to court after sea otters were found in a prohibited zone where they compete with man for profitable shellfish. In Delaware, developers challenged restrictions stemming from a new population of Delmarva fox squirrels.

Lawsuits also come from the other side -- environmentalists who insist that the government isn't doing enough to promote or sustain reestablished species.

Then last year, the government shelved its own plan to reintroduce grizzlies in Montana and Idaho. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton suspended the program after complaints from politicians and ranchers that the bears would put livestock and people at risk.

"It's not so much a biological issue. This whole thing is a social issue," said Carter Niemeyer, federal wolf recovery coordinator in Idaho. "We spend most of our time dealing with a concerned public, sometimes an angry public."

The animals don't always cooperate either.

Managers are considering scrapping a program to establish a second population of sea otters off the Southern California coast after some died during relocation and others strayed from the area. Of 140 otters moved in three years, 30 remain. The overall population of California otters is now in decline.

Programs involving captive animals face additional challenges. More than two dozen condors raised in zoos had to be removed from the wild because of adaptation problems such as roosting on the ground and interacting with people at swimming pools.

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