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Blog: Abigail Austin Visits Mexican Wolf Country While Walking the 1,000 Mile Challenge

1,000 Miles on My Own Two Feet-August 22, 2011

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Gruesome billboards with slain livestock were an unwelcoming salutation to Datil, New Mexico. The distant smoke of the Wallow Wildfire hovered on the horizon below the sun as we arrived at the service station. I got out of the RV, breathing deeply, anticipating the smell of burn. I don’t remember what I smelled, but I remember how the knot in my stomach felt upon seeing the signs.

Datil was only big enough to have the fuel station, which also served as the grocery, bar and restaurant, and the post office across the street showcased two anti-wolf billboards. While my husband headed into the store, I went to inspect the signs.

They were appalling. The first showed two dead animals, a calf and a foal. But what proved these were wolf attacks? The other sign showed a snarling wolf beside the organization publishing the signs, Americans for Preservation of Western Environment (A.P.W.E.).

Mexican Wolves were part of that environment—the overhaul of the west was not natural. It was the early 1800s that European Americans explored the southwest and discovered the abundance of resources in present day New Mexico. They treated the land like a buffet for timber, pelts, and game. When the cattle moved in, the natural predators of the land were forced out. In a century after the arrival of the settlers, wolves and grizzly bear were extinct in the southwest.

In 1998, Mexican Wolves were reintroduced to the southwest national forests. Now A.P.W.E. had their panties in a twist
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Later when I could research the organization, I found more biased accounts of wolves all over their Web site. Apparently the Mexican Wolf caused the stock market to crash, gas prices to soar and the economy to falter (they probably had something to do with global warming, too). These individuals felt as though wolves were after them. Although no human deaths have occurred as the result of a Mexican Wolf attack since the reintroduction, it would happen any minute now.

I opened a story about two hunters in Montana, evidence A.P.W.E. used to show that wolves were dangerous. Reading the story, I caught myself laughing. These two hunters had killed an elk, but for some reason, they left the carcass until the following day to recover it. Part of the sport of hunting includes the collection of meat—it doesn’t end at the kill. If the actual hunter does not finish, the rules of nature say others can. When the hunters returned, wolves “surrounded” them. Later, biologists concluded that Gray Wolves (the larger related species to the Mexican Wolf) and Grizzly Bear had fed on the carcass. It sounds to me that these hunters were mad that elk wouldn’t fill their freezer that year.

In 2008, during an archery hunt, my husband had taken down a white tail buck in western Oklahoma. The deer had not dropped immediately, and after several hours of searching in the dark, we’d made the decision to come back in the morning daylight to look. With some frustration and determination, I’d followed the deer’s confusing blood trail and located our harvest—beneath a big pile of leaves. In our overnight absence, coyotes had taken advantage of free, fresh meat. We’d lost one hind quarter of our harvest. In nature, survival can mean opportunity. These coyotes, just the like the Montana wolves, had found opportunity.

On a different page of the Web site, I found photographs, including those on the billboards, of supposed wolf attacks. None of them supplied proof that wolves were the culprit. Along with photos of dead livestock, several dogs showed deep attack wounds—what were those dogs doing running free? Or had the dog owners kept them responsibly restrained, and the wolf just walked in the house, by the refrigerator, and attacked beloved Spot? Another photograph showed children who’d supposedly been stalked walking to the bus stop. It must have been Little Red Riding Hood’s turn to drive the car pool because the kids’ parents weren’t with them. The photograph I liked was the measured paw print—sorry, that was just George’s print from our walk.

The reintroduction of wolves, including the Mexican in the southwest, the Red in the southeast, and the Gray in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, is extremely controversial. Environmentalists want the land as natural and as well preserved as possible, even if it means restoring it to the state before settlers arrived. The opposition includes cattle ranchers using the southwest national forests for livestock grazing and others who hadn’t been careful enough around wildlife.

Although I feel for the person finding the dead foal in the pasture, horses and cattle are not natural prey of wolves. Elk, deer and small game are. In a normal, ideal circumstance, wolves will eat their natural game. But in a situation of survival, it will take opportunity. They are animals, and we can’t expect perfect behavior. If I leave the dog alone in the car with a big rump roast and he eats it, is that his fault or mine? If I leave garbage out, is it the raccoon’s fault for digging through it? If I take my camp food to bed with me and a bear breaks into my tent for a snack, who is at fault?

But those are all just excuses not to share the environment with wolves or other carnivores. The bottom line of the problem is fear.

Shortly after our arrival into Datil, we made camp in the Cibola National Forest miles away from the nearest people. The sun had already set and its last purple light silhouetted East Sugarloaf Mountain as we took a quick walk with the dogs to stretch our legs after spending most of the day and evening driving. Down the road, a short distance ahead, my husband spotted a carcass. I looked around in the dark. My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the changing light, and every outline looked like something.

Respecting the space of what might feed on the carcass, we cut our walk short. We returned to the camper for our own dinner. Sitting outside while it cooked, the dogs sat tied below two nearby trees. Moths hovered around the light seeping out of the RV windows. From our camp chairs, we enjoyed the smell of our pork chops cooking in the oven, a delicious aroma that undoubtedly spread through the forest.

Every logic and reason told me that no animal would be walking through our campsite, but every time I saw George’s outline look toward the dark forest behind our camper, my heart rate increased.
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By Abigail Austin, El Paso, Texas

Abby grew up hiking the rounded, forested mountains of Western Maine. She has trekked all over the nation documenting the American Wild. This year, with a pen and notebook, her camera and plenty of water in her pack, she’s hiking the 1,000 Mile Challenge, a test of stamina, spirit and fitness.You can visit Abigail’s blog here.

Photo credit: Smoke from the Wallow Fire, courtesy of Jean Ossorio