Jean Ossorio recalls the first time she spotted a Mexican wolf. It was 12 years ago this month. In the spring of 2000, biologists had released two adults and three pups into eastern Arizona as part of an ongoing program to restore wolves to the Southwest. As soon as restrictions on the area were lifted, Ossorio and her husband visited. Hiking back to their car after checking out the release pen, they heard deep howls, about 20 seconds apart, from the hillside to the south. Looking up, Ossorio spotted an ear and part of a face behind a ponderosa pine.
"For just a second or two I saw him, and he dashed to the east," she says, chuckling when she recalls that her husband just saw "fur flying." Later, they learned they'd glimpsed the alpha male of the Hawk's Nest Pack.
Since 1998, when the first wolves were released, Ossorio has spent more than 300 nights camping in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Straddling New Mexico and Arizona, it's where the US Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners have reintroduced wolves, which had been hunted and trapped to extinction on this side of the Mexican border.
Ossorio and her husband of nearly 50 years have gone out there—camping in rain and snow, firing up corned beef hash for breakfast and hitting the hay early—because for them, wolves evoke wonderment.
Of course, not everyone feels that way.
The epicenter of anti-wolf fervor lies in Catron County, home to about 3,700 human residents and 170 beef cattle ranches. It's the largest and most sparsely populated county in New Mexico, and more than three-quarters of the county consists of public lands managed by the National Forest Service, the US Bureau of Land Management or the state.
For decades, ranchers in the county have enjoyed cheap forage for their livestock on public lands; it's not surprising some don't like the idea of scientists and wolves running around on lands they've come to consider their own.
But there's a sense of scale to consider. Currently, there are fewer than 60 wolves living in New Mexico and Arizona. Meanwhile, there are more than 1.5 million cattle and calves in New Mexico alone. Wolf recovery is supposed to be guided by concern for the rare species—not the one that's bought and sold, slaughtered and eaten—and yet the federal government has been a poor advocate for its own program, in large part because its officials are intimidated by a vocal minority.
For those unfamiliar with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, its job is enforcing the Endangered Species Act, a law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973 to protect animals and plants headed for extinction. Under a provision of the law, the agency can also protect troubled populations, even if the larger species is doing fine. For instance, while the Mexican wolf recovery program has struggled—the goal was to have a self-sustaining population of 100 wolves in New Mexico and Arizona by 2006—gray wolf recovery has been successful in the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes region.
In 2009, environmental groups sued Fish and Wildlife, asking it to boost protections for the Mexican wolves, instead of continuing to lump them in with gray wolves as a whole. But, in October, the agency declined.
"That's very disappointing," says the Center for Biological Diversity's Michael Robinson, from his home at the edge of the recovery area in Pinos Altos, NM. The program has been mismanaged, he adds—and, without clear goals, the agency lacks incentive to actually recover Mexican wolves.
Earlier this year, in August, Fish and Wildlife also called out a female wolf that had killed four cows within the past year. At first, the agency issued a "lethal removal order." After receiving an offer from a wildlife rehabilitation center to host the animal, it relented. It was a typical move on the part of the agency—whose top officials have been wishy-washy at best through both the Bush and Obama administrations—and left everyone unhappy. Ranchers were angry the wolf wasn't killed. Activists were aggravated that a healthy wolf was removed from her pack. And the flailing reintroduction program was down one more wolf.
The move also opened the program to political criticism: When the female wolf was finally trapped, Gov. Susana Martinez called for the entire Fox Mountain wolf pack to be removed from Catron County.
The Southwest's wolves play an important ecological role, Robinson says, and recovery also raises ethical questions. "It's simply wrong for us to condemn them to extinction," he says. "We don't have the right to determine which species have the right to share the planet with us."
Healthy ecosystems exist within a kind of balance. Each time another species blinks out—either through deliberate destruction or benign neglect—that equilibrium trembles. And, in a world that's changing as rapidly as ours is today, it's worth wondering what rights we possess as humans—and how we exercise them.