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Wolf Crossings

A Rural Viewpoint On Wolf Reintroduction And Protection

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Updated 11-06

 

Where Wolves Walk Danger Stalks.

 Laura Schneberger

2188 words

     Fearless wolves have long been the blot on wolf recovery and protection efforts.  Habituation to both livestock and people has become the main reason for removal from the Mexican wolf program.  This recovery program is located along the border region of Southeastern Arizona’s Apache Sitgreeves National Forest and in Southwestern New Mexico in the Gila National Forest.  Because the US Fish and Wildlife Service have come to depend on problem wolves as prime candidates for re-release back into the small recovery area, permanent removal of problem wolves is rarely considered an option in spite of behavior.  The thinking among biologists involved in the program is that the wolves that show signs of behavior problems can be rehabilitated if they are just used in the right spot.

 Fall has been an especially difficult time for folks who live on in-holdings within the Gila National forest, there have been numerous run-ins with both single wolves and packs of the animals in the small towns and hunting areas located in and around the recovery area.   Hunters have reported more encounters with Mexican wolves as the animals spread throughout the region and ranchers are loosing more and more livestock to wolf predation.    But worse, from late august to late October human encounters with habituated wolves have been on the rise.  It has become apparent from the reports of wolf encounters that the official agency tally of the animals in the wild has been severely under counted.

 J.C. Nelson experienced a wolf encounter with members of the Luna pack on October 22 while hiking with his dad and some neighbors near Reserve New Mexico. It was near the end of elk season and while other members of the party scouted for elk,  and hung around camp, J.C. did what many fourteen year old boys do in the back country, he took off by himself to get away from the adults for a while. J.C. is an experienced outdoorsman and at fourteen has spent the better part of his life in the Gila.  His dad allows him to carry a rifle when he is in the woods, something that has become increasingly necessary in wolf country.

While concentrating on climbing over downed trees left by a recent forest fire J.C. looked up to find three Mexican wolves stalking him.  The young man instinctively, positioned himself with his back against a large nearby ponderosa pine tree.  The first wolf moved in front of him and stood about 30 feet away.  It was black and wore a radio collar, the other two wolves split up, one went right, the other left.  They circled around behind him and the big tree he stood against.  Because the area he was in was covered in downed trees where a forest fire had burned and the timber had been left to waste, there was no where for him to go so he loaded his rifle and waited.  

J.C. says the wolf in front just stared at him and stayed where it was for a full six to ten minutes.  He said the two that circled behind him paced back and forth and that he could only see them from time to time with his back to the tree. After a while, the wolf in front of him began pacing too then it slowly walked towards the dark tree line, the others followed it. The entire close encounter lasted between five to ten minutes.

It appeared to be over after the wolves walked into the trees, so J.C. eased away from the tree he had used for cover.   Keeping an eye on the retreating wolves, he moved slowly to a nearby open area where he could see the surrounding country better.  There were cattle nearby, so he stayed with them thinking that the cows would alert him if the wolves began following him again.  Knowing his dad was close J.C. began yelling for him, then stopped because he began to be afraid the wolves might locate him again. Instead, he walked at a fast pace to the road, and once there, he ran back to the pickup truck.

Joe Nelson was nearby, and though he had not heard J.C. yell, Joe described his son as shaking and visibly upset when he found him at the truck.

J.C. Nelson was raised in the woods and lived on ranches all his life.  He has worked alongside his father on the family’s cattle ranch.  He says he felt threatened when he was surrounded by the wolves.  

“I didn’t know if I could shoot them since they are endangered, and I didn’t want my dad to go to jail.”    Joe Nelson did not report the incident to the Fish and Wildlife Service and instead called Jess Carey the Catron County wolf interaction investigator. He felt that since there were no visible marks on his son, the federal agency would do little.  

Joe said, “Why bother with them, they won’t do anything anyway.”

This was not the most recent Mexican wolf encounter in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area but it is by far one of the most serious.  Had J.C. Nelson not been armed, had he been a boy with no background in wildlife, had he tried to run from the wolves, this incident could have been a tragedy.

Depending on who you speak to about habituated Mexican wolves, you will hear different attitudes about why their behavior is hardly ever the same as what passes for public education programs have described.   One biologist even described a similar encounter with wolves as simple curiosity.   But biologists on the outskirts of this program find the encounters with the wolves used in the program troubling when they learn of them.  One even bucked common wolf education theories and described such incidents as prey testing and described J.C. as having saved his own life by not panicking.  

Fish and Wildlife Service employees involved in the Mexican wolf program often just ignore the problems and hope they go away.

Carolyn Nelson, J.C’s mother, was shaken herself after the story was relayed to her by her husband.  “I can’t stop thinking about what could have happened to him, he had to climb over so many downed trees to get back to the truck.  There was really no way he could have gotten away if they had decided not to leave him alone,” She says.

She also thinks about a Canadian family who lost their son to a wolf pack a year ago.  “That young man died and my son walked away from this encounter.”    

More and more people are dealing with wolves as recovery efforts become more successful and Carolyn pays attention to the recovery, she knows what is happening in other areas where wolves reside.  “There are people who have been attacked by their own pet wolves and even killed.  Our Fish and Wildlife are releasing wolves that are used to people and have already killed livestock.”   Wild wolves have attacked people in Canada, a month or so ago, a wild wolf attacked 6 people in one day.  Carolyn feels the government biologists are playing fast and loose with the well being of her community. She states. “People’s safety just isn’t important anymore.”

J.C. has not been the first rural child that has encountered a wolf pack while living their day to day lives.  Fourteen year old Ivy Schneberger had a similar experience with a pair of wolves on her family’s ranch in Sierra County in 2003.  She remembers riding bareback on her mare when two wolves held her up on the road about a mile from her home.   She was armed and able to use her single shot 22 rifle to let them know she meant business about them leaving her alone.  When they finally did, ease away into a nearby canyon, she hurried home not even getting off her mare to close the gate a real no no in ranch country.  J.C’s experience with the wolf pack brought it all back to her.  She remembers shaking uncontrollably for an hour after the incident and having bad dreams about it.  Eighteen now, she is still worries about riding fence alone in some of the more remote areas of the ranch.

Ty Gatlin knows all about wolves, the nine year old lost his pet hound and the families valued hunting hound to a wolf attack last July.  When the dog was found, it was barely alive its wounds so horrendous, that Ty’s dad, Don Gatlin put it down. 

“I don’t feel like cooperating with them works,” says Don when talking about dealing with the Fish and Wildlife Service.  I told them for eight months there is a wolf coming in to our house and they take the information and do nothing.  If I had just shot it and not said anything, I would have spared my three little kids and my wife from having to deal with this.”  Don too feels like the agency in charge of the program  treats his family like second class citizens.  While he is still angry, Don has been cooperating and the agency has made some limited attempts to trap and collar the lone wolf that haunts their home and has attacked two more dogs.

Ty’s mother Carlie has allowed him to carry a pocket knife so he feels better about being in wolf country.  She keeps all of the children close to the house knowing she can’t just lock them up all the time.  She knows Ty has to have some idea he can protect himself.  She is sad that her children are confined, and troubled that the agency seems to care little about them.  Don and Carlie and their kids aren’t new to the wolf scene, they have had wolf packs on the ranch for at least six years, nearly all of Ty’s young life.  A few years ago, Carlie wrecked her pickup on an icy road at night and walked home carrying her three year old.  Then six years old, Ty walked with a bleeding gash on his head.  A phone call from a friend in town alerted Don that something was wrong and he found them walking home after the wreck.  The next morning Carlie was taken to the hospital with a concussion.  On the way the family discovered a disturbing scene.  There were wolf tracks in the snow following the family’s footprints down the road. 

One thing is certain, Mexican wolves are making a comeback and the official reports of thirty to forty animals are misleading in the eyes of those who live in the region and encounter the wolves in the wild.   They have even become a common sight along the highway between the small towns of Glenwood, Reserve, Cruzeville and Aragon.  The sightings prompt concern for the children who wait at the bus stops and became so pervasive to daily life that County officials have contracted their own social psychological and economic analysis of the situation. 

A brief synopsis of an interim but still confidential psychological assessment was released at a County meeting held on October 26.  The preliminary result of the affect of near constant wolf encounters and depredations includes the following.   Insomnia in both adults and children- Nightmares in adults and children- Daily life changes and stressors -Feelings about the potential loss of livelihoods and financial insolvency -Varying degrees of psychological trauma -Varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) –Varying degrees of Clinical depression - Chronic fear for the welfare & safety of their family members  - Chronic feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

These are only a few of the many Mexican wolf encounters.  Terry Johnson, Mexican Wolf reintroduction team leader for the Arizona Game and Fish feels that parents are teaching their children to fear wolves.  John Oakleaf, team leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service had this to say about J.C.’s encounter.

 “The management approach for Nuisance Behavior and wolf-human interactions is laid out within SOP 13.0. None of the preceding events would suggest removal or a consistent pattern of nuisance behavior per SOP 13.0.” He is referring not to the Rule governing the 8 year old program but to policies written in recent years to assist the agency in making management decisions.  SOP 13 defines a set of protocol used by the agency to decide on whether to act on problem wolf behavior.

Apparently accosting children is not on that list of protocol to be concerned about.

The program releases human raised wolves in the blue range wolf recovery area, it is only a small step from the wild to habituated behavior.  The wolves have both livestock as easy prey and to people as a perceived food source. 

The agency expects these hand raised wolves to become wild, eventually.  Habituated wolves are often destroyed in any other part of North America.  In the southwest, especially in ranch country, personal well being and even a personal safety of human beings has been sacrificed to the importance of Mexican wolf recovery.