Editorial: Wolves behind the scenes

Photo By Dexter K. Oliver: Fifteen volunteers and biologists swarm around one Mexican gray wolf being crammed into a transport cage within a holding pen at the Sevilleta NWR.

Column By Dexter K. Oliver

It’s an old saying: “The fish rots from the head down.” The Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program upholds that sentiment. It was recently revealed that a survey of the wolves on the ground in Arizona and New Mexico for 2018 tallied 131, up 14 from the previous year. The regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) were quick to declare this “robust” progress in the project.

Of course, after 21 years of fumbling, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and a complete breach of public trust and scientific rigor by these two agencies changing the goal posts, it’s hard to agree with their assessment. In December 2017, the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan was changed drastically. Instead of 100 wolves in the wild, as had been the original goal, a population of 320 wolves for an eight-year period was now proclaimed necessary before delisting from the Endangered Species Act would occur.

And, quite tellingly, the FWS and AZGFD declared all of southern Arizona and New Mexico, from the California border to the Texas border below Interstate 40 as now being experimental Mexican gray wolf recovery area. This insanity was augmented by further proclamations stating that it will take 25-35 years and more than $178 million to fulfill the new reintroduction demands. Something smells, for sure.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the head of the fish that’s rotting so badly, it stinks all the way down to the lowest ranking biologists involved with the program. They see first-hand how badly managed the whole show has been and those that stay on and keep their mouths shut, or worse, lie about it, are complicit in the madness. I saw these inner machinations first hand at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) wolf pens north of Socorro, New Mexico and at the wolf field team headquarters in Alpine, Arizona.

I was working for the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s wildlife division, monitoring their cattle herds for depredation, determining whether black bear, mountain lion, wolf, or coyote had actually made the kill. Three Apache biologists, a Navajo woman who was my immediate supervisor and I spent four days being “trained” by the inter-agency wolf team. It was an eye-opening, behind the scenes look into how the program attempted to function.

We joined 14 other volunteers at a chain-link fence pen at the refuge. The three FWS employees were women, a not uncommon sight in all endangered species reintroduction projects, such as those of the black-footed ferret and California condor. We were there to capture two of the wolves destined to be released into the wild. We formed a human wall and walked the animals into a corner where they placidly submitted to being pinned down and placed into carrying crates. It was much like collaring a dog in a kennel and the metal bin for dried dog chow near the door to the pen added to that comparison.

These wolves were supposed to be getting “groomed for release into the wild” yet here they were surrounded by humans and fed commercial pet food along with some road killed meat. After an immobilizing injection, the wolves were subjected to volunteers taking flash photos as well as petting them and almost swooning from the “spiritual experience”. This last reinforced my knowledge of just how far we as a society had come, insulating ourselves from the natural world and wildlife. The Apaches laughingly asked me if all Anglos were like this, although they knew I certainly wasn’t.

Photo By Dexter K. Oliver: Volunteers photograph and touch an immobilized Mexican gray wolf at the Sevilleta NWR facilities to gain a ‘spiritual experience.’

In Alpine, we were let into the secretive world of the wolf field team. We were allowed to receive updated emails that were strictly forbidden for the public to see. These would document mistakes and mishaps as well as general information that often included “bad behavior” from the wolves. We learned that the number of wolves now in the wild was anyone’s guess. Once radio collars failed it was impossible to keep track of the animals or their offspring, either from other wolves or dogs. The wolves have two responses to their domesticated relatives: they either kill or mate with dogs and at least two litters of such cross-breeds have been found and euthanized.

The Mexican wolf field team continues to haze wolves from human dwellings or livestock and still maintains “diversionary food caches” in the often vain hope that their charges won’t do what wolves do best, kill anything they can eat. According to the recent AZGFD monthly wolf update, there were 45 incidents determined to be wolf kills in the first 90 days of 2019. That means, as the report states, on an average of every other day, the 131 Mexican gray wolves killed a cow, a bull, a calf, a horse, a colt, or a dog. Just think what the scorecard will be if the desired 320 wolves are roaming around where you live. Because according to the wolf recovery area map they may soon be in your neighborhood too.

Dexter K. Oliver has worked for the wildlife division of the FS on the Alpine and Clifton ranger districts of the A-S.