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Sierra County Sentinel, Dec 14

Wolf Encounters and Attacks On The Rise In The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area

The checkered Past of Gila Wilderness, Alpha Female 797 has barely made a dent in her career as an endangered Mexican wolf, though having the endangered title, allows for some leeway in a behavioral sense.

Prior to her latest criminal adventure, f-797 led the life of a canine juvenile delinquent. If the US Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Reintroduction team had their way, her record would have been sealed permanently.

Saddle Pack, The Sequel

On November 6, Billy Lee, a Mimbres outfitter who, like many rural residents, makes his living in the Gila Wilderness running dogs and hunting big game, was up all night. The Saddle pack was in camp harassing and threatened his dogs. The wolves howled long into the night, a dire warning of things to come. Billy was not aware that by simply continuing to make a living in the area, as he had for years, he was encroaching on the saddle packs territory. He didn't’t take the howling hints seriously.

Billy handn't’t worried too much about the Mexican wolf reintroduction, never imagining it would have much affect on him. That night he found himself using a tiny Maglight with a range of 20 feet to run wolves out of camp in the night. The wolves eventually left the camp and wandered off and Billy, believing the nuisance visit over, went back to his bedroll.

The next day in the midst of a fast paced and exciting bear hunt, Billy and his clients heard his pack apparently baying and howling over a treed bear and hurried to catch up. What they found was not a pack of hunting dogs on a treed bear. They found two of Billy’s lead hunting dogs stretched out on the ground and the 7 member Saddle pack, youngsters included, intent on killing them. The pack had focused on the dogs in the days prior to the attack and had trailed them up.

Two days later Billy Lee still couldn’t believe what he had seen and done.

Thinking the wolves would flee at the sight of the humans as biologists so often assure the public, Billy waded into the fray shouting and waving his arms. It did no good.

“I could have hit them over the heads with a club I was so close and they didn’t even look up from killing my dogs. Even when I fired off a 357 into the trees over them, they didn’t even flinch.” The second shot, forced the wolves into the trees but they still did not leave the scene. Billy was able to evaluate the condition of his valuable hunting dogs. Two were injured but in reasonable shape but he had to use a tracking collar to find a missing dog lying off in the brush with worse injuries. “If I hadn’t had a tracking collar on her I wouldn’t have been able to find her and she would have died,” He said.

Billy and his clients spent the rest of the day packing the injured dogs out of the Wilderness and transporting them to the Vet. The bear hunt was off and his clients were forced to leave without their long awaited vacation.

Billy paid a price for the attack, a big vet bill, loosing his best dogs for the season, canceling a hunts with paying clients, perhaps permanently loosing his livelihood, not to mention his peace of mind.

Sugar Coating

When the incident was reported to the USFWS, the agency had time to consult on the best available excuse for the attack. To a man they claimed it was a first time or isolated incident and agency policy was not to remove a pack for one incident. Even though it was far from AF 797’s first brush with bad behavior.

Displaying an arrogant ignorance of the industries that make their living on the land, one employee made an incredible claim to local media that all dogs should be on leashes in the wilderness. In spite of the fact that hunting with hounds is a legal and acceptable activity for local outfitters.

Billy Lee feels differently about the reintroduction now. “I knew it would likely be a problem for my neighboring ranchers and their ability to run livestock, but I guess I fell for the song and dance. I wasn’t actively against the program until now.”

Sealed Juvenile Record

AF 797 is the Alpha Female of the Saddle pack. Born about April 2002 to the Francisco Pack in Arizona, 797 had an idyllic upbringing full of adventure. In August of that year, at about 5 months old, she participated in her first round of calf hunts, accompanied by mom and dad and the rest of her siblings. Trapped and collared that fall, she was at first mistaken for a male and labeled as such in the Mexican Wolf reports that appeared monthly. How it was finally determined that she was a girl wolf is not stated.

In the fall of 2002 Arizona ranchers documented the Francisco and saddle pack wolves killing nearly 60 head of cattle in, even witnessing some attacks. Across the fence on the San Carlos Reservation, officials document nearly 200 head of calves lost in the same time period and the year prior. The official USFWS tally for Francisco in the same time period is upwards of 5 or 6 calves.

The FWS finally determined it was in their best interest to find Francisco a new home before the truth got too hard to hide. Since they were rapidly wearing out their welcome on the 4-drag ranch and the San Carlos reservation, agency officials chose to remove them for “management purposes”, rather than the Documented livestock depredation, according the final rule, five dead cattle is the magic number requiring removal. This hair splitting over the removal reason allowed the USFWS to plan for Francisco’s future and give them a second chance in the neighboring state of New Mexico where the majority of the pack was indeed released in 2003. Fred Galley, Reserve area rancher has coped with the survivors of the Francisco translocation for nearly two years since they were allowed to develop territory on his ranch. Galley’s overall calf crop has taken a hit that remains unconfirmed in FWS tally books.

F-797 was a wild born, yearling wolf when the recapture of the Francisco pack took place. She proved harder to remove from the San Carlos reservation than the rest so they left her be.

Fate Takes A Hand With Wolf f 797

The reintroduction program involves descendants from three lines of animals, McBride, Aragon and Ghost Ranch. AM 574, carried his ancestry from the Aragon lineage. Colleen Buchanan Biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that Saddle Pack Male wolf, AKA, M574 was "our only known Aragon wolf in the wild." As long as he was mated to a female that did not reproduce successfully or the pair raised no surviving pups, the Aragon line in the wild population was in jeopardy.

In the fall of 2003 Saddle Pack, AM574 was mated to AF 510. The pair seemed to have no pups or surviving litters and had been in the wild for several years. September 15 2003, Saddle Pack AF 510 was found suspiciously dead. Oct 30, 2003, almost Immediately after AF 510’s death, and to the Fish and Wildlife services delight, Saddle Pack AM 574 was located with a pup although there had been no pups confirmed with the pair. It turned out to be the young Francisco female 797. They pair stayed together through January, and remained together through the February breeding season. As an official breeding pair, they continued a habitual reign of cattle killing on the San Carlos Reservation. When FWS could no longer ignore the depredation problem of the new Saddle pair a decision had to be made. Once again the removal decision was based on management purposes and not depredation. AF 797 was trapped, likely due to her heavily pregnant state and placed into captivity. Due the difficulty of capturing him and his non-stop depredations, AM 510 wouldn’t be allowed to raise his pups, as a last resort, he was shot and killed the July of 2004.

Aragon Comeback

With the birth and survival of 5 pups in captivity to AF 797, things were looking up for the Aragon line. In September of 2004 AF 797, and her 5 Aragon pups were released into the Gila Wilderness with a new surrogate father of ghost ranch lineage as her new mate. The release Aragon lineage wolves, was considered so important to the program, that is was acceptable to downplay the fact that their mother was a problem animal and would likely educate her litter on the finer points of problem wolf behavior. The alpha male selected as a surrogate father is likely a disposable animal that can be blamed for the problem behavior and if need be, eliminated.

Thus the new, improved, Saddle pack headed up by an alpha female that is a known stock killer and problem wolf was released into the Gila National Forest. The apparent need to get the Aragon bloodlines into the wild population was so pressing the decision was finalized despite the complaints of Arizona and New Mexico stockmen. Justifying the decision, Albuquerque wolf biologist Colleen Buchanan, claimed that the mere act of changing the pack's location, and getting rid of AM 574, would "alter their behavior" and they would not kill livestock.

It was also promised that government personnel would continue to monitor the animals albeit without leashes.

Aspen Pack Part One, Arizona

In August 2004 USFWS in spite of complaints by Blue Arizona residents over the chosen location, USFWS went ahead with the release as scheduled of the Aspen Pack. Fresh wolves with no bad behavior on their record Aspen promptly began hanging around the community. In early November, the wolves attacked a guard dog at the fish hatchery. By late November, the pack was chronically staying in livestock pastures and harassing the locals. One pack member even fought with a dog on the front porch of a house. The numerous incidents reported in only four months of freedom forced FWS to make the decision to remove four of the offending Aspen pack. It was none too soon for the folks in Blue. The wolves will likely be re-released into New Mexico Wilderness where their behavior can be more easily ignored.

It’s A Border, Not A Boundary

Removal of the Blue range wolf recovery boundaries to allow wolves to expand beyond them is currently a hot topic in the program. Officials feel the boundary rule is harming the program and there is no longer enough room for the animals that are on the ground. Yet still more releases are being planned. Environmentalists feel the wolves will never be trained to recognize the borders of their kingdom and that removing wolves that go beyond the borders harms the program and the potential recovery of the animals.

The San Mateo wolves, a pair that mated in the wild in early 2004, made their home on the north end of the San Mateo Mountains beyond the reintroduction boundary. In the spring of 2004 they were confirmed as calf killers and the decision was made to recapture them and put them back into the boundary. September of 2004 they were recaptured, months after the decision was made to do so. Relief was short lived for the local rancher the pair was released into the Gila Wilderness a month after their recapture and it took them only twenty days to find their way back to the ranch.

As of press time a new but still not confirmed report of three hunting dogs killed outright in Arizona, has sprung up. The incident occurred December 9 but no information is yet available. With such reports becoming commonplace, it is widely felt more restraint should be exercised in the musical wolf game. Importance of getting numbers and the different lineages into the wild should take a back seat to finding better behavioral genetics and tendencies when release decisions are made.