By Craig Miller, Southwest Representative
One of the most interesting aspects of my job as Southwest Representative for Defenders of Wildlife is our collaborative work with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, focused on helping endangered Mexican gray wolves return to the landscape. What I’ve learned from working closely with tribal biologists, elders and Apache cowboys is that a much deeper connection between Apache people and the land is what drives their efforts to restore Mexican wolves, as well as Apache trout, Mexican spotted owls and the mountains, forests, lakes and streams that make up their home. In Apache, the word Shii ne’ means both mind and land — they are one and the same. To traditional Apaches, restoring wolves and taking care of the land is about much more than just preventing extinction or achieving sustainable use of resources. It is about restoring and maintaining harmony between mind and land.
The White Mountain Apache Tribe welcomes wolves onto its 1.6 million acres, known as the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Apache lands are comprised of mostly excellent wolf habitat and are considered the crown jewel of Arizona’s Central Highlands. Apache tribal land is largely undeveloped, and includes much of the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the world, which spans 400 miles from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Gila country in New Mexico. This wild landscape lies immediately adjacent to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, where an effort to return highly endangered Mexican wolves to the wild is currently underway. Because of its location between the current wolf recovery area and excellent wolf habitat further to the west in the Grand Canyon eco-region, tribal lands will play a pivotal role in Mexican gray wolf recovery. This species was eradicated by 1980, but saved by the Endangered Species Act, a captive breeding program and subsequent reintroduction into the wild. As of last year’s population count, there were only 58 documented Mexican wolves in the wild, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the species to be the most endangered land mammal in North America.
To help support the tribe’s wolf program, Defenders has provided equipment and training to tribal wildlife staff. Defenders’ members and supporters — through the Wildlife Volunteer Corps — have also helped out, rolling up their sleeves alongside tribal members to help them prepare to host wolf-themed tours. These culture and wildlife tours are a reflection of the White Mountain Apache’s leadership in the wolf recovery program. They also help bring much-needed tourist dollars to create jobs, foster skills and talents and bring those that revere the wolf to a place where wolves and people may learn to live in harmony once again.
This summer, the White Mountain Apache Tribe hosted a special event on tribal lands as part of the Paseo del Lobo (Path of the Wolf) 400-mile community wolf-awareness relay hike across Arizona. Paseo del Lobo, organized by the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project and co-sponsored by Defenders, emphasized the importance of wolf recovery and the connectivity of the landscape through organized hikes and community events along the path that two Mexican wolves — members of a wild population reestablished through introduction — took as they dispersed from the current wolf recovery area and moved into suitable wolf habitat near Flagstaff, Arizona. During the White Mountain Apache events, participants were welcomed by the tribe at a camp in a beautiful aspen forest on Sunrise Mountain, where we enjoyed traditional storytelling, fireside crown dancers, bow-making/flint-napping, medicinal plant use demonstrations, frybread making, traditional meals, horseback riding and interaction with elders and the tribe’s wolf management team. While the tribe considers all information regarding endangered species on tribal lands to be sensitive, Paseo del Lobo participants were treated to stories of the three wolf packs that live on tribal lands: Maverick, Tsay o Ah and Paradise.
I don’t want to paint the picture that Mexican wolf recovery on tribal lands is without conflict or concern. Tribal guides have concerns about the potential impact of wolves on elk, and how a growing wolf population may impact hunting opportunities, which are another significant source of funding and jobs for the tribe. Similarly, the tribe’s livestock associations graze cattle in wolf-occupied areas, and have experienced some losses to wolves. For the past 10 years, we have been working with the tribe on livestock compensation and wolf-monitoring. More recently, we’ve developed range-rider and grazing programs to reduce conflicts between wolves and cattle. Based on our successful coexistence work with ranchers in other wolf-occupied areas, these partnerships offer much hope for the future of wolves, and for those ranchers working to assist with their return.
This summer, members of the Turkey Creek Livestock Association joined me at a range-rider workshop in Reserve, New Mexico to learn about the latest tools and techniques for conflict avoidance. After the workshop, we developed a plan to help minimize wolf interactions with livestock. As part of this, Defenders provided hay and materials to assist with herding cattle and diversionary feeding, to draw livestock away from areas where they could be more vulnerable to wolf depredations. Defenders also provided motion-sensor cameras to the livestock association, and I spent time in the field with tribal wolf technicians and cowboys demonstrating how to use them as a non-invasive way to monitor wolves. The camera-monitoring project is an efficient way to learn where the wolves are spending their time, which can help guide livestock management. I am currently working with the tribe to turn this monitoring project into an incentive program that rewards the tribal livestock associations with payment for each photo of a wolf. These funds can, in turn, be used by the associations to purchase tack and other tools, and we’re hopeful that the payments based on wolves presence will encourage tolerance for a growing wolf population.
Through my work with the White Mountain Apache I’ve made many friends who have generously shared their views of the world with me. I see the Apache’s Shii ne‘ — mind-land harmony — as one of the most beautiful and important things in this life, and it is an honor to be part of an effort to restore wolves to the landscape in a way that promotes coexistence between humans and nature, and helps us return to that all-too-elusive harmony.
Read this blog post, including photos, here.
Photo credit: Jean Ossorio