In November 2011, Mexican officials found the carcass of a Mexican gray wolf near a ranch in Sonora, poisoned and left to die.
A few weeks later, in December, officials found three more dead wolves, all poisoned, their skin showing similar lesions.
The wolves belonged to the first Mexican gray wolf pack released from captivity onto the Mexican landscape since private and government eradication campaigns nearly drove the species extinct in the middle of the last century.
Officials had reintroduced the pack into the wild on Marcelo Rascón’s ranch near Agua Prieta in Sonora, Mexico, in October 2011.
“It was kind of a big deal,” Rascón said.
Only one wolf from the pack survived the 2011 poisonings. She was the eldest female of the bunch and had wandered off from the others.
The deaths would be a temporary setback in efforts to establish a wolf population in Mexico, but would also renew debate over the importance of wolves in Mexico to the overall survival of the imperiled species.
Under a long-awaited recovery plan released last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife managers in this country won’t remove the wolf from the endangered species list until an average of 200 wolves roam Mexico and 320 roam in parts of the U.S. for eight years.
As of July 2017, about 31 wolves roamed the wild in Mexico, although officials released a total of 41 wolves in the 5 years following that first release in 2011.
In February, Mexican officialsreported 37 Mexican gray wolves in the wild after they released five. By comparison, in the U.S., the population was 114.
Wolf biologists and advocates argue that wolf recovery should include more area in the U.S. because Mexico lacks sufficient suitable habitat. Southwestern politicians in the U.S. have held that recovery should not expand further into the U.S., but rather take a “Mexico-centric” approach.
It's a challenge to get each side to accept each agency recovery decision, said John Bradley, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"When you are trying to recover a species that can be controversial you're never going to please everyone," he said. "And we understand that."
'It had to be a secret'
The first wolves were released under cover of darkness.
“It had to be a secret,” Rascón said. No one else in the area wanted these wolves.
The abundance of livestock in Mexico is dangerous for wolves, according to Mike Phillips, a wolf biologist and director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Wolves die due to “real and perceived conflicts with livestock.”
In public comments responding to an early version of the recovery plan, Phillips called those conflicts the species’ “only real threat.”
On the night of the 2011 release, many federal and state Mexican officials came to Rascón's ranch, some flying in from Mexico City. They landed on an airstrip at his brother’s neighboring ranch and shared a carne asada with his family, Rascón said.
He watched the officials carry the five wolves in dog carriers into a pine forest on his ranch.
It was a brisk fall night. Rascón and his family wore jackets and they stumbled around in the dark.
He hoped by allowing the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves he could begin to restore the land to the way his grandfather might have seen it.
“It just really scares you what our children are gonna inherit. And nobody cares,” he said. “Especially in our area.”
Wolves to the north?
The Mexican program has also stirred controversy in the U.S., but for different reasons.
Wolf advocates are suing the federal government, in part, for making the Mexico population a cornerstone of the species' recovery plan. They want additional wolves released in the U.S. north of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico to prevent inbreeding because wolves diversify their gene pool by migrating and mating between populations.
Mexican gray wolves’ lack of genetic diversity is a top threat to their recovery.
In a recent, separate legal win for advocates, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise a 2015 wolf management rule, in part, because it failed to “provide a minimum population size and effective migration rate to protect against genetic deterioration.”
Mexican gray wolves in Mexico and the U.S. can naturally migrate between populations by crossing the border, according to the recovery plan. But it doesn’t happen often and President Donald Trump could sever that connection by building a continuous border wall.
Mexican and U.S. officials have tracked two Mexican gray wolves crossing the border. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the U.S. seeking records, including texts, emails, field notes and data, that reference these wolves.
In a 2012 draft recovery plan, instead of focusing so heavily on the population in Mexico, biologists called for populations in habitats between northern Arizona and southern Utah and between northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't move forward with that earlier plan.
In 2015, governors from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah wrote a letter to the Interior secretary and the Fish and Wildlife Service director, advocating against introducing wolves north of I-40. They cited concerns over wolves disturbing the hunting and livestock industries.
In Zipps’ recent decision, however, she referred to the Mexican gray wolf boundary that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s management rule outlined as an “insufficient geographic range.” The service had imposed I-40 as a “hard limit” for wolves despite acknowledging “that territory north of I-40 will likely be required for future recovery,” she wrote.
Zipps said she was not blind to the challenges the Fish and Wildlife Service face to recover what she called "a socially controversial species,” and she noted the long history of malaise toward wolves.
Even so, the service must keep its “scientific integrity,” she wrote.
The wolf that crossed the border
On March 19, 2017, a wildlife manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Gilbert Gonzales, spotted a Mexican gray wolf near the Chiricahua Mountains.
Gonzales texted Mike Richins, another wildlife manager at the department. They regularly exchange wildlife sightings on patrol, "but this was far from a routine sighting," Gonzales told The Arizona Republic in an email.
Richins predicted a level of chaos to follow.
“You out working,” Gonzales asked Richins around noon on that Sunday.
“I’m not right now. Something going on?” he replied.
“Just glassed up a wolf,” Gonzales texted, using a term for binoculars or a viewing scope.
“Collared and everything. Big dam thing,” Gonzales replied.
“Tried calling. Where at? Think it’s a pet or someone releasing something?”
“Don’t know. Looked like a Dept collar,” Gonzales replied, suggesting the animal was wearing a tracking collar from a wildlife agency.
“Your about to create a s--t storm with this one Gilbert.”
The wolf had migrated from Mexico, but its natural instinct to travel between populations and potentially infuse new blood into the U.S. gene pool was overshadowed by a ripple of political tension and complaints from ranchers over wolf attacks on cattle.
On Thursday, March 23, an officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture urgently called Jason Greff, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer at a refuge on the U.S.-Mexico border, after investigating several dead cattle.
Greff summarized his colleague’s warning in an email and it quickly landed in the inboxes of higher-ups at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest region.
"There's a ... storm brewing with all the local cattle ranchers," Greff wrote, quoting the USDA officer.
The Fish and Wildlife Service staff was well aware. Officials were scrambling to find this female Mexican gray wolf that crossed the border, but her tracking radio collar was broken.
Evidence of possible attacks
Vernon Cox saw her on his ranch in southeast Arizona, he said. She looked the same size as his Australian Shepard, with reddish-brown hair and a shaggy neck and chest.
He suspected she had killed several of his cows. He’d found some with their hides torn and guts spilled out onto the grass, as he remembers it. Buzzards scavenged their bodies and pecked out their eyes. Big bones lay near by, cracked open, the marrow eaten out.
If wolves did prey on these cattle, Cox could apply for compensation through a couple of avenues, such as the Arizona Livestock Loss Board.
In total, he had lost 13 cows around that time, he said. While he didn’t report all 13 to authorities, an investigation determined only one cow died from a wolf attack.
That number seemed low to him. The investigator told him the bite marks on some of his cattle were too narrow to be a wolf’s and that others died from natural causes, Cox said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated eight dead cows, according to a joint press release about the border-crossing wolf by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Besides the one wolf kill, the investigation determined six cows died from natural or unknown causes while one carcass had deteriorated too much to investigate.
Cox gave the authorities permission to enter his ranch to catch the wolf, but under one condition. They couldn’t set her free again.
“They wanted to catch it and put a new collar on it and I told ’em ‘no way.’ If you catch it, you get it out of here or I’m gonna kill the damn thing.”
Cox is an animal lover, he said. He enjoys watching wild turkeys amble though his property and he understands that others want to see wolves roam the countryside, too.
But these wolves cause lots of problems, especially for ranchers, he said. And he doesn’t see any benefit from re-establishing them in the wild.
A scramble to spread the word
The political tension over this border-crossing wolf had state and federal employees scrambling to notify lawmakers and livestock industry representatives.
“Gentlemen ... Have we notified Cattlemen, Senator Griffin as (a) heads up. My guess this will set off alot of chatter. I just saw on my caller id a cattleman association number,” wrote Kurt Davis, a commissioner at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, in an email to the department’s director at the time, Larry Voyles, among others. The email was among the documents requested by the Center for Biological Diversity.
State Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, represents areas along the border.
Davis suggested calling Patrick Bray, the vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.
Benjamin Tuggle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest regional director at the time, urgently emailed members of his staff before meeting with Arizona senators.
“I need to know the status of this situation as soon as possible. I am certain that the subject is going to come up in my visits to the hill with Senator McCain and Flake. Please get me the latest ASAP, thanks.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a bill this year to delist Mexican gray wolves by lowering the recovery goal to 100 wolves. Authorities counted at least 114 in February.
In a room full of public land ranchers last year, Flake said ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico shouldn’t bear the brunt of Mexican gray wolf recovery when 90 percent of the wolves’ historical range is in Mexico.
The governors that advocated against releasing wolves north of I-40 also called for a “Mexico-centric approach” in their 2015 letter.
The weak 'linchpin'
Although the majority of the target wolves are not in Mexico, Phillips, the wolf biologist, called the population in Mexico the “linchpin” of the entire recovery plan.
And that’s the problem, he wrote in his response to the plan. It’s a weak linchpin.
The habitat suitability model that the recovery plan uses leaves much to be desired, Phillips said.
It doesn’t account for livestock in wolf habitat and doesn’t include “a specific layer for land ownership,” he wrote in his response to the recovery plan. The U.S. has far more public land than Mexico.
The recovery plan’s habitat suitability analysis maintains that Mexico and the U.S. still have enough habitat to support viable Mexican gray wolf populations.
But the recovery plan’s goals are lacking wolf numbers and wolf habitat, which jeopardizes the future of the species’ genetic health, according to wolf advocates. More wolves in the U.S. north of I-40 could help solve this, but it would be outside of the recovery plan’s recognized historical range.
Expanding the historical range farther north is not justified, according to a paper co-authored by a wildlife scientific coordinator at the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Researchers from multiple universities published a rebuttal paper holding that the department’s paper “could be detrimental to the successful conservation and management of the subspecies.”
The border wall
While the border-crossing wolf caused a political stir last March, wolf advocates felt encouraged that a wolf crossed the border on instinct.
One other wolf has crossed the border from Mexico, returning after a brief jaunt into New Mexico near El Paso.
While authorities truck wolves from place to place at times to simulate connectivity, the recovery plan maintains that it’s possible for wolves to naturally cross the border.
The plan points out that some areas along the border are porous where wolves can cross, while other sections block movement with a “pedestrian fence.”
When the wolf crossed the border last March, a spokesman at the Arizona Game and Fish Department was hesitant to tout the wolf’s instinctive cross-border migration in a press release.
“Including information about hoped for connectivity for the wolf populations between the U.S. and Mexico begs the question of the proposed border wall. Is that reference really needed?” Mark Hart wrote to his colleagues in an email.
A wall could completely block off the natural connectivity between the U.S. and Mexico habitats.
Both populations in the U.S. and Mexico could “persist” even if a wall severs connectivity, as long as the planned releases from captivity into the wild happen early in the recovery process, said Sherry Barrett, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a press conference last year where she detailed the new recovery plan.
The recovery team wants to front-load releasing these wolves and trucking others across the border in case a wall severs connectivity and because they can affect the population's genetics more easily early on when the pack is smaller, she said.
The recovery plan doesn’t expect wolves to naturally cross the border very often even without a wall.
A shortened trip
The wolf that traveled from Mexico last March could have been a valuable addition to the gene pool of wolves roaming Arizona and New Mexico, advocates say, but she never got the chance to breed in the wild across the border.
When authorities decided to capture her, they kept quiet about their decision because they didn’t want those opposed to wolves to hunt her and they didn’t want advocates to disrupt capturing her.
They set a trap on Cox’s ranch. It clamped tight around her paw. When she arrived at a pen at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico an employee asked a colleague by email if the trap left marks she noticed above her paw.
The wolf was in rough shape. Officials rated her overall condition a two out of five.
Sevilleta wouldn’t be her final stop.
On a November evening in 2017 a group of volunteers carried plywood, nets and poles into her pen at Sevilleta to corner her.
Scraps of animal carcasses and bone lay scattered from her meals in her pen.
She paced back and forth as the volunteers and officials closed in on her, occasionally looking up at the fence, seemingly gauging how successful a leap to freedom might be.
Finally they pinned her down with a big metal fork, muzzled her, hooded her, gave her shots, took her blood and put her in a dog carrier.
They drove her to Kansas to join a captive breeding program for Mexican gray wolves, far away from the habitat she wandered away from in Mexico.
'We had a golden opportunity'
Rascón, the Mexican rancher, was devastated when most of the wolves were poisoned after authorities released them on his ranch in 2011, but he hears Mexican gray wolf recovery has been more successful in other parts of Mexico.
Humans killing wolves is still the leading cause of death for Mexican gray wolves in Mexico, but human-caused deaths have decreased since officials stared releasing wolves farther south, according to John Oakleaf, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field coordinator for the Mexican gray wolf recovery program.
“It is worth noting when we started releasing wolves in the US it took several years to get wolves to ‘stick,’ Mexico seems to be showing that same pattern. A lot of the wolves released do not survive, but the ones that do are ‘sticking,’ ” he wrote in an email.
The recovery plan calls for Mexico to implement regulations that damper human-caused wolf deaths.
Rascón thinks the government should have educated the public more before releasing the wolves in 2011.
For Rascón, the wolf release was a symbol of hope, but it crushed him when most of the wolves died. “Somehow you felt that, wow, this world is really going to go for the worst.”
He worries over environmental degradation across the world, like the deforestation of the Amazon, bleached coral reefs and global warming. “You see everything being decimated everywhere.”
Despite the setback to Mexican gray wolves after the 2011 poisonings, he is still hopeful that his kids will see the same landscape that his grandfather saw.
“We had a golden opportunity to actually make a change," he said, "and we were lucky enough to participate in it."