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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wolves in the West

Air Date: Week of

The cowboy is still king many places in the west, but his future is much less certain. Sandy Tolan reports from New Mexico on the movement to reintroduce the Mexican wolf, or lobo, to the region. Tolan visits with ranchers who depend on cattle and see the wolf's return as a bad idea whose time ought never come, as well as others who believe in an ecosystem approach to living and ranching where wild wolves are once again part of the terrain.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. Long before the cowboys, before the Spaniards, before even the Apache and the Navajo and the Hopi, wolves roamed the ancient Southwest. But with the coming of the cows, predator wolves were considered obstacles to commerce and to the manifest destiny of the frontier. By the 1920s, Federal bounty hunters had nearly exterminated them from the western landscape. Now, like the wolves of Yellowstone, the Mexican gray wolf may be making a comeback. In early 1997, the same US Fish and Wildlife Service that eradicated the wolves 50 years ago plans to reintroduce them into the wilderness of Arizona and New Mexico. This reversal came not because a few bureaucrats changed their minds. As Living on Earth producer Sandy Tolan reports, it came about because of the shifting public values in the land use battles of the west. Battles that are still being waged.

(Music up and under: "With my rope and my saddle and my horse and
my gun, I'm a happy cowboy...")

TOLAN: The cow lies butchered and quartered under a tarp in the flat bed of Jim Cook's pickup. It's a gray day with bite in the air. Cook flicks Marlboro ash out the window, squeezes the wheel with one hand.

COOK: In 60 days we'll have snow on the ground. Keep riding that horse with snowflakes falling, wondering what am I doing here?

(Singer: "And I love to hit the leather in any kind of weather, and I know I'll never change. With my horse and ... ")

TOLAN: The cowboys and their herds cover the land here in Catron County on the western edge of New Mexico. Cows outnumber people 10 to 1. They graze millions of acres of public lands. And cowboys like Jim Cook, foreman of the Pueblo Creek Ranch, have spent a long time trying to make the land safe for cows. In Catron County, wolves are not welcome.

COOK: We've got to contend with bear. We've got to contend with lions. We've got to contend with coyotes. The last thing we need's another predator. I don't know where the idea that we have to have wolves back in the forest or back in the wilderness or whatever. Our forefathers spent a lot of time and a lot of money and energy exterminating them because of what they were. I don't see any reason to ever bring them back. I think they belong in a zoo someplace; people want to look at them, they can go look at them.

(A motor stops. A creaky door slams. Paper rustles.)

MAN: Butcher it this morning?

COOK: No, yesterday evening. Split it this morning.

TOLAN: At Jake's Butcher Shop, men in white lab coats hoist the bloody cow quarters Jim Cook's been hauling over to a hanging scale.

COOK: Hind quarter?

MAN: The front.

COOK: Front. (Grunts as he hauls meat onto the scale)

TOLAN: Then they're hauled into the cooler.

MAN: Just throw it on the floor. (Laughs)

TOLAN: Next to an elk hanging from a hook, a bear's head stares out from a box on the floor.

COOK: All right. It's a nice bear. Big ol' foot.

TOLAN: Reducing animals to harmless fur and meat, that's the custom here. Few people tell romantic stories about bears or mountain lions or wolves. Especially not when the Federal government comes down to the County seat to introduce its plan to put the Mexican wolves, or the lobo, back into the wilderness just west of here.

MAN: They've completely romanticized the wolf, but you know, we can't make decisions based on this Disney emotion. And wolves do eat Bambi, you know? And they pull Bambi down and rip him open and start eating his liver before his heart stops beating.

MAN: We had lobos down there when I was growing up. The most devastating animal that ever crossed the border. And being such a natural killer not only for what it eats, but just for the joy of killing. And here they are today trying to reintroduce it and I just can't understand it.

MAN: I'm just like Jim; I don't, I can't see why they want to turn them loose.

MAN: Oh, they want things to go back to the nature, like what it was before the white man got here. And if they're going to release that wolf they ought to release some Indians down here and some buffalo, and put these gringos across that ocean back where they belong. That's where it's coming from. (Laughs.)

TOLAN: Standing here, you can understand how the lobo was nearly exterminated in the 20s, and you might wonder why anyone would bother trying to bring them back. But the men of Catron County, like ranchers across the Southwest, are now outflanked by city dwellers with different values.

BROWN: The land is not the same as it was 50 years ago. We have to recognize that time goes on, that things change, that there are more people, there's less wild land to use for everybody. And so we all have to make adjustments.

TOLAN: Pamela Brown has ventured to the hearings in Catron County from her home in Santa Fe. She teaches grade schoolers about the value of wolves in the wild.

BROWN: The general public in large percentage is very much for the return of wolves. I think that's the result of a changing feeling nationally and around the world. A more conscious attitude that wilderness supports us all. And that we need to take that into consideration and not see ourselves as the dominant life form here, but rather just one that's connected to everything else.

(Highway traffic; horns. Woman on radio: "Good morning again, we are looking good, heading toward 7:30 with no serious wrecks reported. Interstate...")

TOLAN: For 100 years the cowboy way dominated politics in the west. But as people have come in in big numbers to Albuquerque and Tucson and Phoenix, new values have come in with them. Just south of Catron County, Silver City, old home of Billy the Kid, has grown by nearly a quarter in just 5 years. Now, right around the corner form the old Buffalo Bar, you'll find the Espresso Bar.

(A cappuccino machine whirrs)

WOMAN: At Air Espresso we serve the regular espresso, plus lattes, cappuccinos, mochas. We do iced drinks...

SALMON: Yeah, it's a new kind of person coming in. There's a lot of retirees, but there's also a lot of younger people who are bringing their money and their lifestyle from someplace else.

WOMAN: We serve biscotti, which is an Italian cookie...

SALMON: Those kind of people tend to be wilderness lovers. They tend to be more environmental than the old timers who have been here a long time.

TOLAN: Dutch Salmon is publisher of High Lonesome books in Silver City, and author of Home is the River, a novel about placing wolves back in the wild.

SALMON: Urban people tend to view wildlife differently than rural people. As you get urbanized you yearn for the great outdoors, and you have this ongoing need for wildlife and wilderness and so forth. And you want to see it preserved. And so naturally they're going to want to bring the wolf back as a kind of aesthetic symbol. And since they're not raising any livestock it's no skin off their nose as to what these things eat. It's kind of an armchair fantasy. But that doesn't mean it's irrelevant or illegitimate. Urban people need some connection with the natural world, and if knowing there's a few wolves out there makes them feel better that's all to the good.

RUSSELL: Most people won't ever see wolves, and although they'd like to imagine they could hear the howl most will never hear the howl of a wolf. But that doesn't matter.

TOLAN: Charmin Apt Russell longs to hear the howl from her home outside of Silver City. She's the author of the book Kill the Cowboy.

RUSSELL: As our world becomes more industrialized, as most of our lives are more alienated from the land, we even more need to keep a psychic sense that we are, that there's land out there, that there is wilderness out there, and that we're stewards of it, that we're protecting it.

TOLAN: This ethic emerged not simply through shifting demographics, but through an overall change in values away from the doctrine of eradication and control.

RUSSELL: There's a whole visceral thing about hunting and protecting your land. And I think of just taming the land, you know, of making it safe for cows. In my family I have great uncles who were big lion hunters, and they were the Lee Brothers. And you know, there is just this whole masculine thing about hunting down another predator and of killing them and eradicating them. I think there is a shift in how we see the natural world. There has to be a shift of controlling the world and taming the world and the poison and moving streams around, and just that control: I can control it. What's happened is that science has shown us that's not true. When we try and control those things, sometimes, we destroy them.

TOLAN: But the old-line ranching values are hanging on for dear life.

MAN: But it's not about putting wolves out here, and wolves surviving or being part of the balance of nature. It's about land control.

TOLAN: At a Stop the Wolf Barbecue up in Catron County, people say it's outsiders who are out to control and destroy. The government trying to control people's lives with more and more regulations. The environmentalists trying to destroy local culture and run ranching families off the land.

SCHNEBURGER: We've got a big crosshair on us and we know it.

TOLAN: Al Schneburger runs the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.

SCHNEBURGER: Their vision is to crowd people into cities and force people off the land so that they'll be room for these large carnivores. And what they're talking about is crowding people into pretty small areas. I think they kind of envision it as, you know, the little George Jetson city where everybody rides a bicycle and it's all done with little walkways that move and everything. But the rest of it is just wild. It's the land control; the wolves are really almost a side issue. It's the control by the government; it's about, you know, bringing wolves in to school kids and indoctrinating school children into complex issues that adults can't even agree on. It's by using those kinds of tactics. We know what these people are about and we know what it all means, and it's just one more step to the destruction of our community and our society, and we're well on the way.

(Wind chimes)

TOLAN: Chimes call out from a front porch on an Arizona ranch, just across the border form Catron County. Sunflowers and yellow asters slope through the valley below. Cottonwoods and sycamores snake along a riverbed. This porch stands on middle ground. It's lonely ground staked out by a pair of young ranchers, Will and Jan Holder. Lonely ground, but pretty.

J. HOLDER: I'm looking out over Bear Canyon. It's been pretty over-grazed over the years and there's a lot of rock showing through, but there's still quite a bit of trees. A lot of rolling hills out beyond it.

W. HOLDER: There's about, you see the 20 elk there's about 20 elk out there now. You can see the whole herd.

TOLAN: Just beyond the elk stands the blue range, where the wolves are likely to be reintroduced. Will is third-generation rancher here. For a while, he and Jan were doing time in advertising jobs in Phoenix, until Jan says she was nearly ready to climb a skyscraper with an uzi. They moved back to the ranch but with a different philosophy: to ranch holistically, in tune with the entire ecosystem, and that means predators.

W. HOLDER: We'd like wolves reintroduced onto the ranch. Wolves are part of the ecosystem, part of the biodiversity. The wolf plays a very important part of this whole scheme of things.

TOLAN: Their neighbors think they're crazy, fly by night. But they're tied here, now. Last year they lost a baby girl in childbirth. They scattered her ashes on the ranch. Today, the memory of Will's grandfather, from a different time, a different ethic, lives on in the name of their new baby boy.

W. HOLDER: My grandfather, Cleve, the one we named our son after, was credited as shooting the last gray wolf off the Muggyon Rim. So that was, we'd like to be the generation that reintroduces the wolves back to Arizona.

J. HOLDER: Every time I see an elk, every time I see an antelope, every time I look out and see the coyotes at night or hear them howling, I just think it's just magic that this still exists. And I think we have to fight really hard all the time to keep this way of life and to keep animals alive in the wild. It seems like these pockets of wildness are just getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And I think we have to fight to keep them, or we won't ever hear a coyote howl or a wolf howl, anywhere.

W. HOLDER: I've only heard a wolf once, and that wasn't a wild wolf. There's a guy that has wolves he rents out for movies. I'd really like to hear one. I'm afraid we won't hear one, I'm afraid -- I'm afraid the whole project is not going to work.

J. HOLDER: I'm really afraid of what's going to happen. To be very honest, we live amongst a lot of people out here in Arizona that are so afraid of the wolf, and a lot of it, you know, from stories, from everything from Little Red Riding Hood on down. But we're constantly being confronted by other ranchers that tell us that the wolves are going to eat our child. And they plan on, and they talk about it very openly in public that they are going to shoot them all on sight.

(Crickets at sundown; a gun cartridge is pulled)

TOLAN: On the other side of the Blue Range, dusk, back at the Pueblo Creek Ranch. Two young men stake out a coyote.

GREINSTEFF: I'm Jason Greinsteff.

PENDLETON: I'm George Pendleton.

TOLAN: This is not a wolf stakeout. Jason and George say they wouldn't do that. But the hunt is in their blood; it's part of their culture. Last year Jason and his high school buddies raised money for their senior trip by shooting coyotes and selling the pelts. Now they crouch, poised in the juniper bushes, watching the bait they've laid out, the guts from this morning's butchered cow.

GREINSTEFF: We kind of set them in the clearing so we can draw them out of the brush. See right now, they're in the trees in the forest up there and we're trying to pull them down off that ridge right there. The coyotes off the ridge. We're trying to bring them down to this opening so we can get a better shot at them.

(A recorded rabbit calls)

TOLAN: And from their pickup truck comes the recorded call of a wounded rabbit. The young men are still. In the pale, fading light, a coyote appears from behind a juniper bush. Skinny and alert, he sniffs the air. Jason draws a bead with his Remington 30 ought 6.


TOLAN: He misses. Then he whistles. The animal stops one last time and stares back.


TOLAN: Jason misses again.

GREINSTEFF: He come right down through that clearing, and I had a good shot at him. I just missed him. (Laughs.)

TOLAN: And now darkness envelopes the hills. The coyote has disappeared into the forest. Perhaps to appear again. And across the Southwest, in large holding areas hidden from human sight, the Mexican gray wolf paces endlessly in captivity. Like the coyote, who's had his narrow brush with death, the destiny of the lobo is unknown.

MAN: Wolves and men do not get along well, under any circumstances.

MAN: When I think or see a wolf, the quickest thing I want to do is get my gun and kill him. He just doesn't belong here.

WOMAN: There could be some ugly times, you know. But I think if we can all stick in this long term, I think that we're going to see that we can all live together, and I just really hope that both ends of this argument can just calm down long enough to give it a chance.

(A wolf howls)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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