Wildlife: Who's Afraid of the Mexican Wolf?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

Wildlife: Who's Afraid of the Mexican Wolf?

As the long-lost lobo eyes its return, some cagey southwesterners bare teeth
By Keith Easthouse

Jim Winder has never seen a Mexican wolf in the wild, but for as long as he can remember southern New Mexicans have been obsessed with the scruffy gray and brown carnivore known in these parts as the lobo.

"Every few years when I was a kid there'd be a rumor that one of them had crossed over from Mexico," says the 35-year-old Winder, a rancher whose land borders the White Sands Missile Range, one of two places where the federal government wants to release lobos in a proposed reintroduction program that Winder favors. "Everybody dropped everything and ran out to try and shoot it. Of course, I don't think anybody ever really saw one."

That doesn't come as a surprise when you consider that the Mexican wolf was nearly extinct--on both sides of the border--by the late 1930s, a victim of bullets and the belief that wolves and the expanding cattle industry could not cohabitate. But as 1996 rumbles to life, the lobo is suddenly poised, albeit tenuously, to make a comeback in the Southwest, just as gray wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockies last year. This month the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is expected to finalize a proposal to release 105 Mexican wolves on public land in New Mexico and Arizona over a five-year period starting in 1997. And in the midst of cantankerous debate, both sides agree on one thing: If pro-lobo forces aren't successful now, the federal government probably won't revisit the idea anytime soon.

The battle over lobo reintroduction has been raging for decades, but for the most part it has been overshadowed by the tussle over gray wolf reintroduction in Idaho and the Yellowstone region. Forced into action by a lawsuit, Fish & Wildlife last year outlined a plan to begin releasing the wolves into White Sands and Arizona's Blue Range, at a cost of $7 million. To mollify ranchers, the agency said the wolves would be an "experimental, nonessential population," meaning ranchers could kill them if they found physical evidence of a wolf attack on livestock.

Still, old prejudices form a major roadblock. Despite a recent independent poll suggesting that a majority of residents in New Mexico and Arizona favor reintroduction, some powerful people--including vocal cattlemen and the Republican governors of both states, Fife Symington of Arizona and Gary Johnson of New Mexico--are steadfast in opposition. They claim, among other things, that wolves will bring economic trauma to the region. And when Fish & Wildlife issues a final reintroduction recommendation this spring, Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, a powerful figure in Washington and a longtime defender of cattle interests, will almost certainly lean on Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to shoot it down. As leverage, Domenici could use his chairmanship of the Budget Committee to threaten funding for reintroduction. All of which could mean that none of the 135 lobos now locked up in 29 zoos in the United States and Mexico will ever see the wild.

That, to Winder, would be a shame. "I used to think that Earth First! founder Dave Foreman was pretty scary," he says. "Then I met him, and he turned out to be no big deal. I think wolves are probably like Dave Foreman."

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