THE COYOTES WOKE ME UP. They were near, I could tell, almost inside our camp, just beyond where the vehicles were parked. A whole pack, howling in the moonless night—a chorus of coyotes on the edge of the wilderness. The sound was clear in the stillness, the wind having settled after days of bluster. I fumbled around the tent for the travel clock. 1:31 a.m.
I held my breath to listen better. There came another howl—this one from the other side of our camp, to the northeast. It was much different from the others, a deeper voice, almost baritone: Aaarrrr-oooooo. A storybook sound that went beyond memory and into imagination.
I wouldn’t let myself believe it. In the weeks leading up to this expedition to New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, I had told myself again and again not to expect encountering any wolves. Forget a needle in a haystack—stumbling across a wolf would be more like finding a single, specific hayseed in a haystack. The best I could reasonably hope for was the imagined presence of the wolf, the thrill of simply knowing it was out there.
These were not the famous wolves of Yellowstone I was tracking. Since they were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s, the Yellowstone wolf packs have become celebrities—the focus of Disney documentaries and television specials and countless biologists’ studies. Some of the wolves in the Lamar Valley packs have been photographed and filmed to death—literally. (By now the animals are so habituated to being watched by humans that they don’t exercise enough wariness when they leave the safety of the national park, and have become an easy mark for hunters.) Instead, I was after the Mexican gray wolf, the Rocky Mountain wolf ’s smaller cousin. Less famous, perhaps, but just as polarizing: hated, celebrated, beloved, “protected,” and “managed” at huge cost and effort.
According to the most recent count at that time, there were eighty-three known wolves in thirteen packs roaming the wooded mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. Just eighty-three animals, and yet they had caused so much conflict among their human neighbors. The ranchers in this vestige of the Old West were outraged about wolves preying on their cattle. The hunters—an important constituency in a place where elk outnumber people—were ticked off about the competition for game. Some moms worried that the wolves would attack their children in a modern replay of Little Red Riding Hood. Environmentalists, meanwhile, were angry that the wolf reintroduction was moving so slowly and were worried that the tiny population was at risk of suffering a genetic bottleneck. Caught in the middle was the US Fish and Wildlife Service which, in an effort to placate everyone’s fears, had resorted to an elaborate system of control over the wolves.
By the time I arrived in the Gila, the Feds had functioning GPS or radio collars on forty-eight animals—more than half of the known wolves in the wild. Many more had been implanted with PITs (personal ID tags) just like some people put into their pets, with a specific Social Security–like number complete with genetic information and vaccination history. The animal tracking and pack management had become a nonstop job. Every Monday an airplane staffed with personnel from either USFWS or the Arizona Game and Fish Department was spending five to six hours flying over the rugged countryside to pick up the telemetry signals from the radio collars. Whenever a she-wolf had a litter, the wildlife managers would enter the dens to take a census of the pups. The wildlife managers stalked the wolves across the landscape and set out baited, rubber-toothed foot traps in order to nab the animals and get a radio collar around their necks.
In spite of all the manhandling, the wolves continued to live according to what was left of their instincts, which, above all, spur them to roam widely in search of prey, or a mate, or a fresh territory in which to form a pack. When I went to the Gila (pronounced Hee-la) in the spring of 2014, the wolves were still confined to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area—the government’s lingo for where the Mexican gray wolves were “permitted” to be. At 4.4 million acres (about 6,800 square miles), the recovery area was larger than the state of Connecticut. Yet the wolves inevitably ranged beyond it. And when they did, the government agents would swoop in by helicopter, dart and muzzle them, recapture them for a potential re-release back inside the boundaries of the recovery area, or, in the case of “problem wolves,” remove them from the wild forever.
A wild animal living in a giant, invisible cage—the whole thing seemed absurd. The Mexican gray wolf ’s situation all-too-perfectly captured the plight of the animal kingdom in the Age of Man.
From what I understood, the Southwest wolves were mostly wild. They were hunting elk, eating deer, and forming packs. Fifteen years after the first reintroduction, more than 95 percent of them were wild-born and wild-raised. Yet they were held tightly on the leash of our laws. If they crossed some undetectable dotted line—ate one calf too many or roamed too far—they would be put in a kind of conservation jail cell.
1:32 a.m. the clock now read. The howling had stopped as soon as it began. The coyotes had resorted to yipping and yapping and, from what it sounded like, running back and forth, clearly agitated about something. Fearful.
Had that really been a wolf howl? I wondered again. No way, I thought.
I tried to close my ears to the coyotes, whose persistent barking was already becoming annoying. I remembered Thoreau: “All good things are wild and free.” The Mexican gray wolf seemed to meet that first description. But here on this garden-planet, where room to roam is scarcer than ever, can we really call them “free”?
The cage measures about eight feet by four feet, made from wood and wire and with a corrugated tin roof pitched to the rear. It’s well built and airy. There’s a door that latches on the inside, benches to sit on, and it’s tall enough to stand up in. That’s because the cage isn’t meant for animals, but rather for human children. The local kids are supposed to go inside the cage when waiting for the school bus, just in case a wolf is stalking them.
There are several such “kids’ cages” in Catron County, the sprawling New Mexico county in the midst of the Gila National Forest, and one of them sits at the edge of Heather Hardy’s place in the community of Cruzville. Hardy, a single mother of four, is terrified of the wolves. She used to raise laying hens, but then she started to lose them to predators—to a wolf, she is sure. One night in the fall of 2008, she heard commotion among her horses, and then the kids on the porch yelling, “Mom, mom, get your gun.” She came out of the house to find a wolf standing on the slope above one of her two corrals. Hardy—a Navy veteran who served as a corpsman in Desert Storm—fired a couple of warning shots into the hill with her snub-nosed .38. The wolf didn’t flee. Then she aimed at the animal and fired again. “I got a gut shot on it,” Hardy told me. Investigators eventually found bite marks on Hardy’s quarter horse, she says. “I don’t like to kill anything, but I had to . . . . I just have no patience for those damn things.”
Hardy is a sweet woman, with long, brown hair and eyes as green as a wolf ’s. A tattooed vine wraps around her left wrist. She is, she confesses, an animal lover. Hardy works as an EMT, and neighbors and family bring her injured jackrabbits and squirrels that she nurses and then releases back into the woodlands (except for one squirrel her kids have kept as a house pet). Her juniper-studded lot is like a mini-menagerie: she has two goats, two riding horses, one miniature horse, and seven dogs, plus a small flock of chickens and turkeys. The morning we met, a couple of cats were slinking about. “I love all the wild animals,” she said. “I just don’t like the ones that they put here, that they raise by hand and then dump on us.”
The wolves, she said, are more vicious than other predators. “They kill things—it’s a thrill kill. It’s more of a game to them. I’ve seen five calves down, and only one is eaten. My chickens and turkeys, they would kill them but then only take one bite out of them.”
There’s something wrong with the wolves that have been reintroduced to the Gila, Hardy says. “They are not acting like they are supposed to. They don’t have the normal behaviors. Everything is scared but the wolf. I’ve been hiking and have seen mountain lions—they don’t want to get aggressive with you. A wolf doesn’t have that sense. They half want to play with you and half want to eat you.”
She paused, then said, “Everyone around here is so afraid, because they know what will happen if they shoot one. They know they will go to jail and pay fines out the ying-yang.
“You know, everyone’s terrified.”
Here are the facts. Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican gray wolf, is a distinct subspecies of the more common Canis lupus found in the Northern Rocky Mountains and up into Canada and Alaska. (The timber wolf of northern Minnesota, Canis lupus occidentalis, is another subspecies.) While the wolves of the Rockies tend toward dark gray or even full black, the Mexican wolf is lighter colored—more of a yellowish gray, often with a black back and tail tip, and sometimes streaked with auburn. The desert wolf is about a third smaller than its northern cousin. Males usually weigh sixty to eighty pounds and measure roughly five and a half feet from tail to nose, females a bit slighter.
In all other respects, the subspecies are the same. The Mexican gray wolf—often referred to by its Spanish name, lobo—is a prodigious traveler. A wolf can travel forty miles in a day, working itself into a “harmonic gait” in which the back paw falls exactly where the front had landed, a rhythmic jog that conserves energy. It has impressive stamina and speed. Wolves have been known to swim for up to fifty miles.
The wolf is, famously, a formidable hunter. Packs will run prey for hours before accelerating to an attack in which they can reach a top speed of thirty-five miles per hour. The animal’s anatomy is made for destruction, its forty-two teeth adapted for seizing, tearing, and crushing. Its jaw can slam shut with 1,200 pounds-per-square-inch of force, twice the power of a large dog, enough to snap a bone. In the Southwest, lobos’ preferred game are ungulates—elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer—supplemented by rabbits, mice, squirrels, and, if they can catch them, birds.
Wolves also prey on domesticated livestock: sheep when they find them, and the occasional horse, but mostly cattle—especially pregnant cows and young, vulnerable calves. Usually they hunt in packs. The wolves come from behind, snapping at the prey’s haunches and hams and biting at the flanks until the animal weakens or is brought down by a lunge to the throat, thrown to the ground to be ripped open and, typically, eaten alive.
Sometimes wolves will engage in what biologists call “surplus killing”—a killing spree in which they will hunt more than they can eat. Perhaps this is driven by the wolf’s “search image,” a picture of a specific prey that is burned into the animal’s mind in its adolescence; having learned to take down one kind of prey, it will keep coming back to that food source. Perhaps such surplus killings have to do with the fact that a wolf’s life is marked by feast and famine. Wolves have been documented eating up to a fifth of their body weight at one time; other times they go weeks without eating anything. A wolf can spend up to a third of its life on the hunt.
Wolves are sophisticated social animals that live in complex communities. A lobo pack normally consists of six to eight animals, dominated by an alpha male and alpha female that are the best hunters in the group and (usually, but not always) the only ones that breed. Gestation is exactly sixty-three days, during which the alpha female digs a den for raising the pups. She has her litter in the spring, normally between four and six pups, a third of which won’t make it to adulthood. The pups are weaned at five weeks, at which point the whole pack works together to feed and care for the young.
Wolves are social eaters as well as social hunters, and biologists have speculated that this cooperation is what creates interlocking and overlapping bonds of responsibility and accountability among the pack—a primitive system of ethics, if you will. Packs also develop distinct personalities, so that an experienced field biologist can tell one pack from another just by its behavior. A wolf pack creates a culture unique to itself.
The animals are smart as hell. Wolves have a highly developed “response intelligence”—that is, they learn. A wolf that has been trapped once is all but impossible to trap again. Wolves have been found to defecate on human artifacts—beer cans, spent ammunition casings—as well as poisoned meat, as if in a kind of warning to other wolves.
Above all, they are indefatigable. In his landmark book, Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez shares the story of an aerial hunter who, in the winter of 1976, encountered ten gray wolves traveling on a ridge in the Alaska Range. The animals had no way to escape, and the gunner killed nine quickly. As Lopez tells it:
The tenth had broken for the tip of a spur running off the ridge. The hunter knew the spur ended at an abrupt vertical drop of about 300 feet and he followed, curious to see what the wolf would do. Without hesitation the wolf sailed off the spur, fell 300 feet into a snowbank, and came up running in an explosion of powder.
Live free or die, I guess. For more than 200 years that normally meant death. Like most other wolves in the Lower 48 (the timber wolf being the one exception), the Mexican gray wolf was nearly hunted into oblivion. Lobos were trapped, hounded, and gunned down from the air. Thousands were poisoned by strychnine-laced meat scattered from airplanes, like a chemical air raid raining death from the sky. It is no exaggeration to say that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century campaign against wolves—spurred by ranchers and often funded by the state and federal governments—was an attempt at biological genocide. Extinction was the goal.
(The war against wolves and the wars against the Indians overlapped and were all but undistinguishable. At the start of an 1865 campaign against the Northern Plains tribes, a US Army general told his troops that the Cheyenne and Lakota “must be hunted like wolves.”) By 1976, there were only a handful of Mexican gray wolves remaining and the animal was placed on the endangered species list. Roy McBride, a longtime wolf hunter whom the federal government had hired to rescue the last ones, trapped four males and one female in the mountains of northern Mexico and brought them to the United States. Two more wolves came from a line of animals descended from a pup that a Canadian tourist brought across the Mexican border in his motorcycle saddlebags and decided to drop off at the Arizona Desert Museum in Tucson. Biologists had to re-create a healthy population starting from just those seven animals.
Captive breeding facilities in California, New York, and Missouri crossbred the animals in order to establish some genetic diversity in the population. By the late 1990s, the captive population was around 170 animals, and the USFWS—after conducting scores of public meetings across Arizona and New Mexico—said it was time to begin releases into the wild.
The first release, in the spring of 1998, went badly. Of the eleven wolves reintroduced to the wild, five were shot and killed almost immediately, three were removed and returned to captivity after leaving the recovery zone, and one went missing. But the Feds decided to keep going. In November of that year, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt—a former Arizona governor—participated in the release of two female wolves and declared at a press conference that 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. . . . The reason we’re releasing these two wolves is to send a message that this is public land. . . . The Mexican gray wolf has come home and it’s here to stay.
Bold promises, to be sure. But the situation on the ground was more complicated. Constantly hammered by the region’s livestock industry (and likely hamstrung by political appointees during the George W. Bush administration), the USFWS spent most of the following decade in a defensive crouch, and the recovery effort stalled. After an initial burst of activity, releases essentially stopped. Between 2004 and 2013, only eleven more wolves were sent into the wild. Meanwhile, the USFWS and Arizona Game and Fish staffers were busy either “translocating” wolves—meaning capturing, penning, and then re-releasing—or permanently removing them. Between 1998 and 2013, 104 wolves were translocated and another 24 were permanently removed from the wild. At least eight wolves died in the course of such operations.
About half of those translocations or removals were prompted by livestock depredations and about a third were due to wolves going beyond the recovery boundaries. Eight percent of USFWS management actions involved “lethal control”—that is, government agents shot and killed twelve wolves. And that’s a fraction of the wolves that have been killed illegally. Since 1998, at least fifty-five wolves in the Southwest have been shot in violation of federal law. Poaching is the number-one cause of death for the lobo.
After hitting a nadir of forty-two animals in 2009, the population was at eighty-three wild wolves by the time of my visit, though everyone on all sides agrees that there are more lobos out there, un-collared and unknown. (By February 2015, the number of confirmed lobos in the wild had risen to 109 individuals in nineteen packs.) Some 260 wolves remain in the captive breeding facilities or at Ted Turner’s vast Ladder Ranch in south-central New Mexico. Take that in: there are more than twice as many Mexican gray wolves living behind wire fences as there are in the wild.
While many other wolf populations in the United States have been removed from the endangered species list due to intense lobbying from the livestock and hunting industries, the lobo continues to receive Endangered Species Act protection. Under a new USFWS rule finalized in January 2015, the wolf recovery area was expanded to the east and south, allowing lobos to roam all the way to the Mexican border and opening the way for captive wolves to be introduced into New Mexico (before that, initial reintroductions only occurred in Arizona). But the wolves still will not be permitted to pass north of Interstate 40 (which connects Flagstaff, Arizona, to Albuquerque), and the wild population will be capped at 325 animals. Private individuals will be given wider latitude to shoot or harass “problem wolves.”
This compromise approach has pleased no one. Ranchers and hunters, who are already opposed to the reintroduction program, say the range expansion will only lead to more attacks on cattle and game. Conservation groups say the 325-animal figure isn’t close to what’s needed for a healthy population, and they argue that the range increase should connect with the Southern Rockies of Colorado. The Mexican gray wolf may have been given a somewhat larger box in which to roam—but it’s still a box.
Those are the facts. Everything else about the lobo is hearsay, slander, exaggeration, fabrication, aspiration, or plain old myth. We seemingly can’t help but drape animals with our symbolism. It’s too bad, really. Most often we end up smothering the plain eloquence of the thing-in-itself under a pile of metaphors. But maybe that’s just a natural (I guess you could say) part of human instinct. As a species, we’re hardwired to seek out emblems through which to interpret the world. “We use wild animals to tell stories about ourselves,” Jon Mooallem writes in Wild Ones, his book about the “psychic pack animals” we moderns have devised. I can’t think of a beast that has been asked to carry more of our psychic burden than the wolf.
Animals are a portal into wildness. With their autonomy and their native indifference to us, wild animals force us to consider that other beings have a will of their own, a set of interests distinct from ours. This is especially true for us twenty-first-century city slickers who have grown unaccustomed to anything beyond our ken. Just the glimpse of an animal in the wild—the flash of fur in the underbrush, a tail bounding out of sight—is like an otherworldly visitation.
I suppose I could have chosen another beast through which to explore the ironies and idiocies of our relationships to wild animals. The Yellowstone bison, say, brought back from the very edge of extinction after the wanton slaughter of the 1800s, and now hemmed into the national park, hazed or gunned down if they roam too far because ranchers are afraid that the buffalo might make their cattle sick with brucellosis. Or the California condor, another remarkable recovery story: a stable population bred from just a handful of birds, then reintroduced to the Ventana Wilderness of the Big Sur Coast. Now back in the wild, the condors are at risk from lead poisoning (bullets and buckshot being a dangerous dietary supplement for a scavenger). The mountain lion also would have been a good choice. The big cats are making a precarious comeback after a century of bounty hunting—slyly moving from mountain strongholds to eek out a living in the Hollywood Hills, the suburbs of Denver and Salt Lake City.
But I kept coming back to the wolf, blessed and cursed with charisma. Of all the large carnivores in North America, no other animal provokes such intense feelings of both attraction and repulsion. For some people, the wolf has long been the totem animal of wildness. Adolph Murie (Olaus’s brother), a longtime ranger in Alaska’s Denali National Park and a pioneer of carnivore biology, once said, “Wolves are the voice of wilderness.” For others, wolves are a hated menace. That great outdoorsman, Teddy Roosevelt, scorned the wolf as “the beast of waste and desolation.” Centuries earlier, European Christians feared the wolf as the devil in disguise. The Cheyenne and the Arapaho viewed the wolf as the spirit-animal of power and courage, but the Navajo believed it was a witch. A New Mexico rancher, Joe Bill Nunn, told me, “These animals are terrible animals, these wolves. They are brutal killers, they are savage killers. There are no two ways about it.”
Our conflicting emotions about the wolf, it appears to me, have more to do with our species’ similarities than with any differences. We’re more like wolves—with their big appetites and their guile—than we are like the naïf-ish deer. Read a bit of canis lupus biology, and after a while the wolf tales begin to sound Shakespearean—a tumult of rapaciousness, generosity, fratricide, outcasts and loners, loyalty and affection.
I feel sorry for how the wolf has been freighted with our parables, at this point a weight heavier than any radio collar. The wolf, I make myself remember, is just an animal, not any more “solvable” than human nature is solvable. Toward the end of Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez, after having spent hundreds of pages plumbing the depths of our mixed-up wolf myths, delivers a stern warning against overthinking: “We assume that the animal is entirely comprehensible. It seems to me that this is a sure way to miss the animal and to see, instead, only another reflection of our own ideas.”
Okay, then. Once we strip away all of the legends, what do we have left? The plain fact of brutal competition. If some hunter-gatherers esteemed the wolf, agriculturalists have always despised it—and for some good reasons. Our relationship with the wolf is so vexed because, perhaps more than any other animal, the wolf is our direct competitor. For millennia, a wolf pack at the edge of the pasture meant the difference between a season of bounty and a season of famine. The wolf snatches dinner off the table. This ancient rivalry forces hard choices: Can we find a way to live with the wolf’s wildness and share space together? Can we coexist, and come to see another carnivore as something of an equal, and not just an enemy? Or do we have to control it, and in that control limit its wildness, the very thing that draws us to it?
The Gila is big country. At 3.3 million acres, the Gila National Forest is one of the largest US Forest Service holdings in the Lower 48. Combine that with the adjacent Apache National Forest, Cibola National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management’s Plains of San Agustin, the Blue Ridge Wilderness in Arizona, and the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Reservations, and you get a vast area of some 6 million acres of wildlands. That’s a space about as large as New Hampshire, with a combined population of fewer than 50,000 people. When driving the region’s back roads, the locals bring along an extra can of fuel and four or five gallons of water. If you break down, you could easily have a fifty-mile walk before finding help.
The Greater Gila is mostly high desert, beginning around 4,000 feet and rising to peaks of 11,000 feet or more. The terrain is furrowed and creased, with the usual extremities found in arid lands. Mountains tumble into ridges, which fall into mesas, which slide into ravines and mazes of canyons. Most of the area is a mixed woodland of pinyon and juniper stitched with yucca and prickly pear. At the higher reaches there are stunning, miles-long ponderosa groves. All around grows what’s called grama grass—a bunch grass with a filament stalk topped by a sickle-moon seed head. In the fall, after the monsoon rains sweep through, the grass is blue-green. Then it turns brown-to-blond. For most of the year the Gila looks like a pure-gold carpet dotted with the green bulbs of the juniper-pinyon stands.
The Gila is sometimes referred to as “the Yellowstone of the Southwest,” and the big, mostly uninterrupted space is an ideal wildlife haven. On the Plains of San Agustin I’ve seen herds of pronghorn bounding across the great sea of grass beneath a rain-shredded sky. Tens of thousands of elk and deer graze the woodlands. There are javelina, fox, coati, and bighorn sheep. Beaver are still found along the Gila River, where needlelike spires rise above sycamore stands. In the springtime the woodlands are filled with pinyon jays and mountain bluebirds. When the sun dips past the last ridges, the canyon tree frogs begin their all-night trilling and a flawless firmament appears. I’ve never seen such stars: the night so pure the sky has its own texture and the stars appear hung in three dimensions, crystals dropped into a net of dark matter.
The Gila Wilderness is one of the last places in the continental United States big enough and wild enough where even someone with a good bit of woodcraft can go astray. Few people make it out that far, and the trails are barely used. Many of the paths are little more than faded cow tracks or game trails that peter out into underbrush. Stop, listen, and an awesome stillness arrives, as if someone took the Quiet Dial and turned it all the way to zero. There’s just red rock and gold grama grass and the twisted shapes of dogged juniper. For a desert kid like me, the Gila is heaven on Earth.
Because of its size, wildness, and relative absence of humans, the Gila was a natural choice for the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf. There was also a kind of poetic justice at work: the Greater Gila had been the site of one of the most famous conversion tales in the science of ecology.
When he was a young man just starting his career with the US Forest Service, Aldo Leopold was posted to the Gila. It was there—among the “crumpled topography” where “the Creator . . . piled the hills ‘high, wide, and handsome’”—that Leopold’s commitment to wilderness preservation was formed. The mesas and mountains of the Gila were his model for wilderness as an area “big enough to absorb a two-week pack trip.”
No doubt the land’s lonesomeness influenced the notion of wilderness as a place empty of people. By the time Leopold arrived, only echoes of memory remained of the Bedonkohe Apache. In 1924, after years of internal lobbying, Leopold got the Forest Service to declare the Gila a roadless “primitive area”—the United States’ first official wilderness preserve, created forty years before the passage of the Wilderness Act. (There’s an important irony in the fact that a permanent human settlement—a Mogollon-era village, now Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument—sits at the center of “America’s First Wilderness.”)
The Gila also forged Leopold’s insights into ecology, especially the role of predators in an ecosystem. Leopold was a man of his time, and like other land stewards in the early twentieth century, he believed predators were a scourge to be eliminated. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac. One day he and some other foresters were “eating lunch on a high rimrock” when the party spotted a she-wolf and pups frolicking on the banks of a river below. “In those days we never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” he wrote, and “in a second we were pumping lead into the pack.” Leopold climbed down to the carnage and reached the mother wolf “in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”
Later, after years of studying how ecosystems work, Leopold would recognize what a mistake it had been. Without wolves, the deer population exploded, the deer began to eat too much, and the woodlands started to suffer. In his short essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold wrote that a landscape without wolves “looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. . . . I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”
Contrary to all the myths and legends he had grown up with, Leopold concluded that predators also have a place in nature’s design. Yet he knew that such a truth would be hard for many to hear: “Only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
The night that I heard the coyotes and what, I hoped, were wolf howls, I was camped at a well-used hunter’s camp at a spot called Cooney Prairie, right on the north edge of the Gila Wilderness. It was my second night in the Gila wildlands as a small group of wildlife advocates and I tried to locate some of the lobos.
Peter and Jean Ossorio had organized the trip and picked the site for our base camp. The couple is in their early seventies, and they’ve dedicated their retirement to wolf advocacy, especially Jean, whose enthusiasm for the lobo is unflagging. Since 1999 she has spent more than 350 nights in a tent in the wolf recovery zone. During that time she has spotted a wolf forty-three times, and has many more reports of tracks, scat, and howls in the woods. Jean says her passion for wolves developed in the 1970s, when she had a chance to see up close one of the lobos in the captive breeding program at the Endangered Wolf Center outside St. Louis. “Part of the reason I was interested was that they are very social animals, their relations in the pack are very interesting,” she told me. “Part of it was that they were so maligned and vilified. I have always identified with the underdog, or the not-quite-so-popular.” She keeps up a blog, Lobos of the Southwest *, that sends our regular e-mail action-alerts to wolf advocates. When it came time to celebrate her seventieth birthday, she took an overnight trip to wolf country.
(*Our Note: Lobos of the Southwest is a collaborative effort of multiple organizations and individuals that work towards the recovery of Mexican gray wolves. In addition to being a staunch lobo advocate and activist, Jean contributes to the website with her real life experiences in wolf country and in-depth wolf bios.)
Ossorio’s fervor has kept her youthful. There are only a few strands of gray in her long brown hair, and when she talks about the wolf—which she does in an encyclopedic, looping stream-of-consciousness—she’s seized with a girlish enthusiasm that seems incongruent with her Bea Arthur–like build. “The more you see them, the more you become fascinated with their regulatory effect on ecosystems,” she says. On her wrist she wears a silver bracelet stamped “Makas 131,” the name of the alpha male of the original Hawk’s Nest Pack, the first wolf she ever heard howl in the wild.
Her husband, Peter, served twenty-eight years as an artillery officer in the army, including several tours in Vietnam, then went to law school on the GI Bill and became a federal prosecutor. Eventually Jean infected him with her wildlife passion. He is, as it were, a patriot for the wolves. Mention the wolf controversy, and his normally easy demeanor snaps into the cold bearing of an experienced litigator. “The ranchers are grazing their cattle on public lands. That’s a privilege, not a right, and it comes with certain responsibilities,” he said. “I don’t care what the ranchers think. I care whether they are complying with the law of the land.”
We were also met at Cooney Prairie by Dave Parsons, a former US Fish and Wildlife biologist who launched the wolf recovery program in the Southwest. Parsons ran the reintroduction effort from 1990 to 1999. Then, he says, “I defied direct orders to cook the science, and it led to my early departure from the agency.” According to Parsons—whose arguments are backed by several peer-reviewed studies, including a draft recovery plan created by the USFWS in 2011 but never adopted—a healthy, stable lobo population would mean about 750 wild animals distributed across three distinct population segments. Parsons told me, “The three regions would be the Blue Range Mountains, the current recovery zone; the Grand Canyon eco-region, into Southern Utah; and the Southern Rockies, meaning southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. In that 750 scenario, the density of wolves in a given area is very small. That’s what the best science calls for.”
Accompanying Parsons was an English journalist, Adam Nicholson, on assignment for the British literary journal Granta, which was planning an issue themed—get this—“Wild America.” After one evening at the camp with the five of us, we were joined the next morning by Michael Robinson, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. Robinson is a cherubic fellow whose frequent smile and gentleness belie a fierce passion for wildness. I had met him the previous autumn, during a USFWS wolf hearing in Albuquerque, and he had made no attempt to hide his disdain for the ranchers. “If you’re trying to increase biodiversity, using cattle as a tool makes about as much sense as creating peace with a machine gun,” he told me. “Part of the culture of the livestock industry—despite its image of rugged individualism—is about asking for government assistance.” The ranchers, he said, act like they’re “rural royalty.”
Later that day Craig Miller from Defenders of Wildlife arrived. He came rolling up on a dust-covered, red BMW cross-country motorcycle, rumbled through the camp, leaned the bike against a juniper, and promptly cracked open a beer. Miller has devoted close to twenty years of his life to the wolf reintroduction, much of it spent driving the deep back roads of the Greater Gila to meet with livestock owners (the motorcycle had been an in-kind gift from someone who wanted to see the work continue). Defenders of Wildlife has been at the forefront of wolf recovery efforts in the United States, mostly trying to work with ranchers to ease their concerns about the reappearance of an apex predator. The group started by paying ranchers direct compensation for confirmed wolf depredations of livestock, then helped pay for range riders to follow the herds. “We’re trying to get the ranches to go from coexistence to tolerance to acceptance,” Miller said, an epic weariness apparent in his voice.
We spent that afternoon sitting on the edge of Cooney Prairie, watching two large elk herds graze and talking about the wolf saga. Everyone there had a profound, almost ineffable love for the wolf. Yet there was something else at work: a hope that in bringing back the wolf, some larger wound would be healed.
The lobo recovery in New Mexico and Arizona is just one part of a broader movement for “rewilding.” All too aware that the preservation of wild places is no longer sufficient, conservationists have turned a lot of their attention to ecosystem restoration. We must also repair the damage of the past: freeing the rivers that have been impounded, reviving degraded wetlands, nursing endangered species. If twentieth-century conservation was about drawing lines on a map, twenty-first-century conservation is about filling them in.
The enthusiasm for ecological restoration—especially rewilding, with its emphasis on the return of large predators—marks an important turning point for the broader environmental movement. Rewilding flips conservation from a defensive, rear-guard action into a forward-looking act of imagination determined to create more abundance. Rewilding affirms that we don’t always have to play the role of destroyer. Our interventions with wild nature can be virtuous, too.
All kinds of ecosystem restoration efforts are under way across the United States. Many of them are small-scale—the repair of this single streambed, the rebuilding of ecological processes in that one watershed. To restore ecosystems on a regional or continental scale requires, above all, the reappearance of predators.
There’s a scientific term for the phenomenon of ecological knock-on effects that Leopold observed during his wolf-hunting days in the Gila: “trophic cascades.” Mostly using the Yellowstone wolves as a test case, wildlife biologists have confirmed that apex predators like wolves exert a profound pull on an ecosystem. This has to do with what is known as “top-down regulation.” An ecosystem is shaped and reshaped in several ways. “Bottom-up regulation” refers to the flow of energy coming up from the great mass of fungi and bacteria and the photosynthesis of plants, consumed then by thousands of different invertebrate and vertebrate herbivores. Topdown regulation is the way in which animals at the top of the food web mold an ecosystem. Apex predators influence the behavior of their prey, and that new prey behavior in turn affects the species on a lower trophic level. The mere presence of a top carnivore ripples through the landscape.
Imagine: a wolf appears on the scene. Suddenly, the elk can no longer loaf around the valley bottoms. They actually have to start paying attention to their surroundings and looking for threats. As the elk become more cautious, they begin to browse differently. Trees and shrubs are offered a reprieve. Aspens, once chewed to the ground, reappear along the riverbanks. The more robust greenery offers new space for other critters. Beavers come back. Mesocarnivores like coyotes begin to behave more cautiously. Cause-and-affect spills from one level of the food web to another, like a waterfall. The mark of the wolf’s tooth, biologist Cristina Eisenberg says, is powerful enough to shape the course of a river.
Biologists sometimes describe apex predators’ influence on the landscape as “the ecology of fear.” The phrase intuitively makes sense. An elk herd without wolves nearby enjoys the luxury of becoming stupid and lazy. As soon as a predator returns to the picture, the elk have to become alert and active. Fear invigorates them. The elk’s new skittishness gives an aspen—and riverine grass and, eventually, a beaver—more of a chance to thrive. The presence (or absence) of apex predators is the most important single predictor of how wild a landscape can be.
And so the wolf once again becomes a symbol greater than itself: the animal as optimism for our ability to rebuild the wild world. Rewilding, Craig Miller said, represents nothing less than an “evolution of ethics.” The centuries-long war against wolves, he said, “was all part of this campaign of ‘winning the West,’ this struggle of man versus nature. Well, we won the West. It’s ours. We own it. The question is, having won it, do we have to beat it into submission? Or can we strike a balance, because our health and our welfare as a society ultimately depend on the persistence of wild nature.”
Robinson said, “People today have a sense of how badly out of whack our world is, and here’s an animal that’s so vital to restoring that balance. We have to start somewhere, and the wolf is a great place to start. This is an animal that can be instrumental to conserving a large ecosystem. . . . It’s an issue of justice, of making things right.”
I shared their enthusiasm. But I worried that the rewilding effort had gone astray—not in the intent, but in the execution, which seemed at once half-assed and heavy-handed. After fifteen years there were just a scant eighty-odd wolves in the wild, nearly all of them micro-managed. The lobo program seemed like a bad example of gardening on a landscape scale.
We decided to go for a short hike to get a better view of the elk herds. The thought had been that the elk would be an attractant to wolves, but there were no signs of the predator. We spotted some very old, almost petrified scat, and that was it. Looking for a wolf in the wilderness? It seemed a fool’s errand.
Miller and I were walking out ahead of the others, and I asked what motivated him to keep going despite the serial setbacks. “The reason I’m into this—why I do it, personally—it’s because I think the wolf is an amazing way for us to reinterpret our relationship to wild nature and to each other. It triggers something in us, both the good and the bad. The wolf starts important conversations. I was at a meeting with a rancher recently, and he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Why are you here?’ And I told him, ‘I’m here because I feel deeply about wild places and wild life.’ And that’s what it is. The wolf makes us think about how we want to relate to nature.”
Laura and Matt Schneberger’s place is just about the prettiest ranch you’ve ever seen. From the closest neighbor’s house to Rafter Spear Ranch it’s a fourteen-mile drive down rough and tumble Forest Service roads. Then you hit a perennial creek that cuts a narrow valley between ponderosa slopes and rugged cliff faces. Big, tall cottonwoods shade green pastures. The solar-powered ranchhouse, bunkhouse, barn, and saddle shop are all painted a rustic red, the same color as the old Farmall tractor in the yard. Horses and pack mules mill about the corral. Laura keeps beehives and a vegetable garden out back by the windmill. It’s like the place was conjured from a modern cowboy fantasy.
The Schnebergers, Laura especially, have distinguished themselves as two of the most vociferous opponents of the lobo recovery program. Laura is one of the hubs of a network of ranchers and hunting outfitters who have fought the Feds’ program (and the wolves themselves) for more than fifteen years. She’s like a mirror of Jean Ossorio. Mother of three, grandmother, with the unflagging energy of a pioneer. She’s the longtime president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association (Matt’s the vice president), and has turned the group’s website into a clearinghouse of anti-wolf news. She writes frequently about wolf depredations, keeps up an e-mail list for area ranchers, and never misses a public hearing on the animal, which she abhors for what she says it has done to her herds. “A wolf needs twenty pounds of meat at every sitting, or forty pounds, depending upon the type of wolf,” she told me. “Once they learn to kill your baby calves, they’ll kill a baby calf every day. They’ll clean it up, and you won’t have anything left.”
On my way to meet up with the Ossorios and Dave Parsons, I spent several days driving around the back roads and meeting with ranchers and outfitters to try to understand their hatred of the wolves. What Craig Miller and Michael Robinson see as an act of restorative justice, the ranchers view as an imposition by “animal lovers” and “bunny huggers,” a vicious plot by the federal government and well-heeled environmentalists to destroy the rural way of life. “Anybody else would be allowed to protect their property, but apparently if you ranch in wolf country, you are not,” Laura Schneberger said at one point in our hour-long conversation. “Your rights are different than everybody else’s.”
“We love animals, and we like to take care of our animals and provide safety and nutrition for them, and when we have these killers, these wolves, released, it’s sickening to see our animals killed,” rancher Joe Bill Nunn told me. “It’s devastating on us. There was a reason they got rid of those wolves in the first place.”
Wink Crigler, a widow whose family has raised cattle outside of Greer, Arizona, for more than a century, said to me: “In the beginning I believed there could be some coexistence, so that I could exist and there could be some wolves here, too, recognizing that these are public lands with ‘multiple use.’ Now I don’t think there can be any coexistence. Because what I raise is what wolves like. I can’t produce that commodity in the presence of wolves.”
Then something weird happens. The reasonable concerns about wolves’ impact on livestock get magnified and the fears become deeper, an echo of the old myths about the wolf as a devil, a fiend. Many people who live in the Gila are convinced that the wolves pose a threat to human life. Everyone has a frightening wolf story to tell.
“Did you hear about what happened to the Nelson boy?” a woman who ranches to the northeast of the Schnebergers (and who asked to remain anonymous) said to me. “He was cornered by a pack of five wolves. They pushed him back against a tree, surrounded him. He had a rifle, but he was afraid to use it. He said he was afraid that if he shot and killed a wolf his dad would lose his grazing allotment.”
When Wink Crigler heard I was planning on going backpacking into the Gila alone, without a firearm, she tried to warn me off. “You’re nuts,” she said. “Why do you want to put yourself at risk like that?”
The fears then get magnified to a stronger power. Many residents of the Gila are convinced that the wolf reintroduction is a government conspiracy to wreck the livestock industry and drive people off the land. In the course of my conversations I heard whispered warnings about “Agenda 21”—a United Nations plot to corral people into cities, where they’ll be easier to manipulate. The wolf, I was told, was just the vehicle of a larger agenda to crush people’s freedom.
“It’s like having a four-legged Al-Qaeda around—it’s about instilling fear,” a local hunting outfitter, Brandon Gaudelli, told me one morning over coffee. “They have allowed in the wolves to get rid of the elk, so that someday there won’t be anything left to eat. They want everybody out of the mountains. They want us in the cities where they can control us.”
Crigler was certain of the same: “What I really think is the wolf issue really is not that much about the wolf. What’s it’s really about is Agenda 21, putting people off of the land, taking away the ability to be sustainable. The wolf is a tool to accomplish what the government has been talked into by a lot of environmentalists who . . .share this mentality of moving people out of the rural areas and back into the urban areas.”
The tracks were as clear as the morning-gold light over Cooney Prairie: canine pads, stamped into the red dust of a Forest Service road. Jean Ossorio, wildlife geek, had a tracker’s measuring stick. She laid it on the ground next to the marks. Four-and-a-half inches from tip to toe. Too big for a coyote. The storybook howl in the night really had been a wolf.
We spent the next half-hour doing a bit of backcountry sleuthing. The spacing of the tracks seemed off, Parsons and Jean agreed. It was a weird gait, as if the animal had been injured. We followed the tracks down the road, and after about a hundred yards the riddle resolved when a second line of tracks appeared. There had been a pair of wolves, at first trotting single file, and then splitting off to jog side by side.
We were all amazed. A pair of wolves a mere thirty-five yards from where our tents were set! Parsons said we should all buy lottery tickets when we got back to civilization—our luck was that good. Jean bubbled with delight. “I think I can image the thrill a hunter feels when he finally spots his game,” she said to me as we walked up the slope to the camp. “It’s just so exciting, to know the wolves are close.”
The next question was which wolves they were. As I made breakfast, Parsons and the Ossorios pored over Gila topo maps and the most recent radio-collar telemetry reports, taken just days before. There was a possibility that the pair was the Canyon Creek Pack—F1246 and M1252—but they would’ve had to cover a good bit of ground to reach Cooney Prairie and, besides, it seemed they were getting ready for denning. Perhaps the pair had been some members of either the Dark Canyon Pack or the Fox Mountain Pack, but, again, the wolves would need to be moving far and fast to get to us. With no radio-collared wolves in the immediate area, there was a chance the pair was anonymous. We couldn’t be sure, however, until the next telemetry report came out.
We had our breakfast in the sun, maps spread out, speculating about the wolves’ whereabouts. Everyone wanted the pair to be uncollared, to be “outside the program,” as Parsons said. It was dispiriting to think that even our wild animals are locked firmly in the matrix, their movements as carefully tracked as those of any person with a credit card and a laptop.
We draw Cartesian lines on a map and expect that wildness will abide by the rules. The wilderness goes here; the working landscape goes there; the wolves will remain in this invisible box. It’s little more than self-flattery. The legal boundary of a wilderness designation can keep earthmovers out, but it can’t keep a wolf in. The Sisyphean effort to restrict the lobos to a certain zone—a task about as practical as tacking olive oil to a wall—says a lot about the limitations of our legal wilderness system. A wilderness area might be able to preserve some of the world’s wildness, yet wilderness can’t contain the wild. That’s the thing about wildness: even in its debased condition, it sneaks by.
The wolf war in the Southwest is fueled, above all, by a clash of instincts. The wolf’s instinct is to roam far and wide. Our instinct is to dominate, to shape the world to fit our needs. We also have a deep desire for omniscience. More than any other animal, the wolf tests our ability to live with things out of our control and beyond our understanding. Unlike much of the rest of wild nature, the wolf isn’t merely indifferent to humans and our desires—the wolf is actually antagonistic to our interests. As Laura Schneberger put it: “We’re both apex predators, and so we are in direct competition with them.”
At its heart, the fear of the wolf is a fear of wildness, and the fear of wildness is the fear of a loss of control.
Kerrie Romero, a representative with a hunting organization called New Mexico Outfitters and Guides, seemed to capture the thinking of most locals when I heard her say, “We spend thousands of hours in the backcountry. We understand the importance of a healthy predator–prey balance in the wild. We also understand that in a world of human authority, that dynamic needs to be managed in order to maintain balance.”