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Groundhog Day at the Wolf Wars

By Barney Nelson

Ground Rules

Trust was so low between organizers of the "Leopold Forum: El Lobo," the audience, and players at the recent wolf symposium held in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that participants received the following instructions in their registration packets on how to behave in public.

The Leopold Forum: El Lobo brings together people from diverse perspectives to discuss environmental history and policy, in an effort to illuminate the complex social, ecological, and ethical issues surrounding the reintroduction of the Mexican Wolf. We ask you to respect the diversity of opinion on this issue by following these ground rules for productive conversations:

This meeting was an interdisciplinary symposium called "Leopold Forum: El Lobo." Sponsored by the New Mexico State University Department of History, and cosponsored by the College of Agriculture and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, assembled speakers represented historians, agency personnel, scientists, ranchers, wolf advocates, and authors.

The crowd was also an interesting mix. Well, actually, it wasn't mixed. On one side of the room sat lots of little old ladies, lots of wolf T-shirts and jackets, women with pink hair, leopard-print silk blouses and low-cut sweaters (wolf groupies?) and men with ponytails. On the other side of the room people wore boots, jeans, cowboy hats and down jackets that made them look seven feet tall with shoulders like Schwarzenegger. Across the back of the room, sometimes even sitting in extra chairs placed against the wall were San Carlos Apaches in denim jackets and black hats. The lines were visibly drawn in the sand and all were wearing their uniforms.

Amazingly, a first for me after years of attending academic symposia, the organizers had inserted instructions on how to act (see "Ground Rules" sidebar) into our registration packets. I wondered which of us they expected trouble from. Flanking the crowd at the front of the room stood big, armed security officers, scanning the crowd for six-guns, tomahawks and drugs. I sat front-middle, lonesome, empty seats surrounding me.

By the end, when we were supposed to be discussing solutions, the Apaches had vanished, most of the booted and hatted had stomped off, even the groupies were gone. The 25 speakers all sat onstage either trying desperately to control their tempers or yawning - depending on which side they were on. I had taken an intense personal dislike to two people: a cheery, cooperative "rancher" whose favorite line seemed to be, "It works for me," and Ted Turner's Robert Redford-look-alike henchman who said his newest assignment from "The Boss" was to control rain.

Up until this experience, I had naively clung to my faith in education. If we can only get the truth out, I thought, then people will understand. In preparation for the meeting, I read every piece of wolf science I could dig up. I was prepared to watch for inaccuracies and ready to step in and clear them up during question and answer periods. All these people needed, I again thought naively, was a good scholar. I knew the ranchers would make a poor showing. I'd had enough of them in class to know that doing tedious research is not one of the skills most of them bother to learn. So, as I said earlier, I was here to help.

Stashed in my innocent-looking teacher's book bag, I carried copies of research on such things as the children attacked in India by wolves: 80 attacked and only 20 rescued between 1993-95; 76 attacked with 50 fatal from March to October in 1996 (see "India Warns Parents" sidebar). I also carried famous wolf biologist L. David Mech's 1978 article explaining that wolves completely wiped out the white-tailed deer population in Superior National Forest, in a wilderness area that hunters did not penetrate. I had also dug up numerous scientists who argued against Mech's often-quoted theory that predators harvested mostly the old, lame, and sick. I was loaded for bald-headed bear.

Arizona/New Mexico Map

Wolves from the "primary recovery zone" (green) in the Apache National Forest will be allowed to range into the "secondary recovery zone" (pink) which includes the Gila National Forest. If a wolf wanders further, it's supposed to be caught and relocated. Wild wolves could roam huge areas of Arizona and New Mexico as well as some "hot spots" near the Mexican border. (Illustration: John Bardwell)

Dr. Mech, senior research scientist for the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, was one of the first speakers. It seemed he had read my mind and showed a real-time video of two Yellowstone wolves quickly killing a limping cow elk with a throat bite - a perfect and impossible-to-argue-with example of wolves humanely harvesting lame wildlife. Even though the wolves probably caused the lameness too, Mech reaffirmed his stance with a great visual aid. Not only did he unload my bear gun, but with this one swipe he also discredited the following professional PowerPoint presentations that the ranchers had prepared showing calf after calf and cow after cow attacked from the rear, their hams eaten away but often still alive; heifers with sliced vulvas that had healed closed and left them unable to calve. Obviously, the ranchers were lying again. The rear-end, bloody injuries must have been caused from their own mismanagement because we had all just been shown on video that wolves attack by throat bites and kill quickly. No blood. The world authority on wolves just proved it.

As soon as the question and answer period opened after Dr. Mech's talk, someone asked about wolves killing humans. Yes, he acknowledged that in India wolves had killed "some" children but that investigations had shown that poaching had reduced the wolves' prey; livestock was protected there better than children; and mothers were possibly leaving their children unattended because of a government compensation scheme that paid lucratively for children killed by wolves. He said the payment often represented a year's wages to the poverty-stricken mothers. Everyone groaned, easily imagining those Indian mothers throwing their children to the wolves for money. Now, if I mentioned the numbers or that in just one instance a task force of over 200 armed forest personnel had been unable to capture the child-lifting wolf for over three months, I'd have just been labeled as another shrill voice. So I kept quiet.

India Warns Parents

An article by Yadvendradev V. Jhala and Dinesh Kumar Sharma, both from the Wildlife Institute of India, which appeared in a 1997 issue of Journal of Wildlife Research listed the following precautions in their extensive article about wolves killing children in India because they said people have not had experience dealing with wolves in several decades. These suggestions may also be helpful to both U.S. campers and rural people. Vulnerable-aged children, according to Indian researchers, are children between the ages of two and 10 who live in areas where huts are scattered and where vegetation can conceal a predator.

In the case of the child-lifting wolf, specific precautionary measures would include: vulnerable-aged children be made to sleep indoors. Where proper housing is not available children should be made to sleep between adults and tethered to the cot.

Children should be accompanied by an alert adult while answering toilet calls at night. A flashlight or lantern, some amount of noise and pelting nearby vegetation with stones would be helpful in deterring a predator waiting in ambush.

Children should not be allowed to roam unescorted amongst crop fields, tall grass or vegetation, areas likely to provide cover for a wolf.

Villages in the affected region should appoint a night watchman or take turns at night watch. The watchman should take rounds of the village with a flashlight and accompanying watchdogs at hourly intervals. He should use firecrackers at irregular intervals to scare off the predating wolf.

The majority of child killings that we investigated resulted from neglect on the part of the parents. If these precautionary measures are implemented, the magnitude of the conflict would be severely reduced.

Note: Not all children died when attacked by a wolf in India, of course. The researchers said several survived when the wolf was chased by parents, siblings, or villagers and dogs. One four-year-old boy was dropped when the wolf was chased from two sides by a group of villagers. According to other sources, British officials recorded 624 humans killed by wolves in the same area in 1878, and during the 1980s wolves killed more than 100 people.

At lunch the next day, I somehow managed a spot rubbing elbows at the same table with Dr. Mech. Everyone else at the table was definitely pro-wolf, gushing their admiration of Mech's work. One guy even said that on his personal scale of deities, first there was God, then Jesus Christ, then Dave Mech. My new plan of attack was to quietly appeal to his scientist's ethics. So screwing up my courage, in front of the tableful of wolf people, I asked him about his study on wolves that had wiped out the deer herd in Superior National Forest in 1975. He said I was absolutely right. I bravely ventured further, "And no hunters were responsible, right?" Right, he assured me as well as the group at the table, and added that the deer herd had still not recovered there. So I sat back to observe the reaction to this bomb planted in the wolf people's midst. Nothing.

"Aren't wolves interesting animals? Yes, there is so much we don't understand about ecology. Do you still return to Ellesmere Island, Dr. Mech? Oh, how wonderful." Even though he carefully interrupted to explain that the musk oxen and snowshoe hares had also been wiped out there by wolves.

I was stunned back into silence. What good would it do me to remind these people that even Indians and Eskimos trapped and hunted wolves heavily? The facts are either ignored or interpreted to fit the dream world. The rest of the symposium continually reconfirmed my frustrating epiphany that education was not going to work.

One bright spot was an emotional outburst from one of the booted and hatted Apaches now standing at the back of the room. In broken English he said something like "Get rid of wolves. We no want wolves. Get rid of them."

A panel of speakers that included his tribal lawyer soon followed his short speech. The lawyer looked like a fairly normal Apache except for his nice lawyer haircut and clothes, his perfect English, and his professional multi-media presentation, first showing clearly that the wolves had been released on lands stolen from the tribe by the U.S. government and ending with the same proclamation we had just heard - remove the wolves - but this time calmly and in perfect English. Not as fun but no possibility for misunderstanding. The San Carlos Apaches all raise cattle and probably have more registered cattle brands than the state of Texas. After they had voted and politely asked the U.S. government to remove the wolves, a significant percent of their calf crop has turned up "missing."

Their neighbors to the north, the White Mountain Apaches, are still accepting wolves - so far. The officials seemed to be having a difficult time both believing the request and in catching the wolves to remove them. And wasn't it the dang federal government who had the bright idea to send Indians to school, even law school? Disenfranchised, powerless people? We'll see.

The lawyer had begun his talk by telling jokes that subtly defended his people and sent a few arrows flying in needed directions. First he told the joke about the white guy who saw a good-looking horse on the reservation and wanted to buy it. The Apache owner refused by saying, "Horse no look good."

The white guy insisted that the horse looked great and kept coming back, upping his price. Finally the Apache guy sold the horse. The white guy was soon back, screaming that the horse was blind and the Apache had stolen his money. The Apache guy said, "I tol' you. Horse no look good."

Then the lawyer asked if we'd ever heard of a guy named Custer. We had. So he said that just when Custer was leaving for the battle of the Little Big Horn, he turned to the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) guy - here the lawyer interrupted the joke to explain that the Crows were there too and the BIA guy was there to advise the Crow reservation - and said, "Don't do anything until I get back." Everyone laughed, even the numerous government employees in attendance.

Killer Wolves

Since historians seem to be having problems digging up this information, here are a few documented cases of wolves killing and/or injuring humans. Although wolves should not be excessively feared, and wolves that kill humans are very rare, we do need the truth told by someone.

Research: Scott, Peter A., et al. "Aggressive Behavior by Wolves Toward Humans." Journal of Mammalogy 66.4 (1985): 807-809; Munthe, Kathleen and J. Howard Hutchinson. "A Wolf-Human Encounter on Ellesmere Island, Canada" Journal of Mammalogy 59.4 (1978): 876-878; McNay, Mark E. "Interactions in Alaska and Canada: A Review of the Case History." Wildlife Society Bulletin 30.3 (2002): 831-843.

Scientist: Arctic wolf attacks a scientist in Canada (1985 - Arctic, Vol. 38, 1985).

Female Researcher: Three penned wolves had to be killed before rescuers could get to the body of a female wildlife reserve employee that the wolves had killed in their pen (1996 - The Kingston Wig Standard, Ontario, Canada, April 20).

Trapper and Two Indians: An elderly trapper did not return to the post office as promised, so two Indians were sent to find him. All three were killed by wolves (1922 - Port Arthur, Ontario newspaper, Dec. 27).

Negro Man: Two Negro men were attacked in Kentucky by wolves on the way home from visiting girlfriends. One survived by climbing a tree (1851 - John James Audubon, "Black American Wolf" in Quadrupeds of North America).

Farmer and Son: A pack of wolves attacked and ate a farmer and his son (1888 - The Saint Paul Daily Globe, March 8).

Eskimo Woman: She was strangled by a wolf as her husband rushed to her assistance (1829 - John Richardson in "Fauna Boreali-Americana").

Sick Indians: Not only did wolves come into the Indian camps and eat corpses dead of smallpox, but also attacked, killed, and ate the sick (1770 - Peter Kalm in "Travels in North America").

Injured: Several instances of nonfatal, but serious attacks in Canada and Alaska have appeared recently in the news: Algonquin Provincial Park, 1996; Yakutat, Alaska, 2000; Vargas Island, British Columbia, 2002 (The Wolf Society of Great Britain,

Rabies: Of course history is also full of accounts of rabid wolves killing humans, but advocates slip around these records by concentrating on "healthy" wolves. Since wild wolves can't be vaccinated, why does it seem so comforting to think a wolf must be rabid to attack a human? By insisting the accounts be "documented," scientists and advocates are also able to discredit hunters, Indians, Eskimos, and rural people who just "remember" but don't write the story down or publish it.

Guns: Wolf attacks on humans seem to occur mostly in places where the general population is unarmed and/or where wolves are protected. The low number of recent historical encounters within the U.S. borders as compared to India, for instance, are probably due to the fact that during the period of America's written history almost every citizen went about armed and seldom passed up a chance to shoot at a wolf. Protected animals lose their fear of humans.

The rest of the day became a rain of speakers falling on deaf ears. One study on radio-tagged calves found that ranchers were only able to find about one in eight wolf kills. So? A historian discussed Ernest Thompson Seton's short fictional story, "Lobo: King of the Currumpaw" as if it really happened (see "Nature Fakers," Range, Spring 2002). So? Another historian sang praises to Canis lupus niger as the red wolf (which is actually Canis rufus meaning red canine, not red wolf because it is half coyote). The red wolf was not even included on the biologists' maps as a form of wolf. So? Still another historian said the journal supporting Aldo Leopold's story about shooting the wolf had never been found. So? Highly respected historians constantly parroted Mech's often-quoted statement that "there is no record of an unprovoked, nonrabid wolf in North America seriously injuring a person" (see "Killer Wolves" sidebar). So? Several biologists said the wolf's wild prey base in Arizona/New Mexico was depleted. So?

Author David E. Brown admitted up front that he didn't really know anything about wolves but had written his book, "The Wolf in the Southwest," based mostly on Roy McBride's information and that McBride probably knew more about the Mexican wolf than any other living human. The next speaker, Peter Siminski from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, agreed. So where was McBride? Nobody knew. I suspected McBride had been scratched from the guest list because, among other things, he documented one wolf that killed 96 steers and yearling heifers on one ranch over an eight-month period and was also killing on other ranches at the time - information that also mouldered in my unopened book bag.

The wolf advocates also had some great suggestions: ranchers should radio-collar all of their calves; ranchers should stop baiting wolves with dead livestock so they don't learn to eat livestock; the federal government should pay subsidies to ranchers instead of the benevolent Defenders of Wildlife; and we need a large national park in Arizona similar to Yellowstone.

Wow! My eyes had been opened.

One of the final speakers, Hank Fischer, special projects coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, said he felt like the guy in the movie "Groundhog Day" who hates his job as a newsman, especially covering Groundhog Day, and has this dream that he must relive Groundhog Day over and over and over and over. But the movie eventually ends happily and the guy even gets the girl. Fischer's advice? Keep showing up to these meetings. He said the people left in the room at the end will make the decisions. I figured that the only people who'd be left in the room at the end were those who were paid to be there - travel budget, expense account, government vehicle, etc. They might not be awake, but they'd be there.

I left the symposium in a state of depression. I no longer trusted the power of education. I no longer trusted the scientists who seemed to edit their research to support their advocacy. I no longer trusted the historians who didn't seem to know fact from fiction. I no longer trusted my government. Also lurking in my unopened book bag was documentation that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had sent Predator and Rodent Control (PARC) employees to Mexico to help poison wolves and then as soon as the wind changed direction and they realized they were working themselves out of a job, they hired a trapper to catch the last of those Mexican wolves for the captive breeding program that is now releasing them. As early as 1978 - documented in my book bag - they had picked out the release sites. I think this game of chess could be called "justifying your budget." Now that the wolves are on the ground, breeding like rabbits, depleting wild game and starting to get more serious about livestock, the public winds are about to change again. Plus, the U.S. government sure doesn't want new Apache trouble. Some history lessons maybe they remember.

Someone said FWS announced just five days earlier that they are turning the Mexican wolf recovery program over to Arizona Fish & Game. What a surprise. I'm sure the same will soon happen in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. That way the states can be blamed and will have to deal with the public outcry as soon as the wolves are totally out of control. Next step? Call back the feds, of course, so they can play the cavalry riding in to save the day once again. We need some new movies.

As a matter of fact, when I left Las Cruces I'd listened to only two speakers I felt I could trust. One was a pretty but very cranky, beleaguered lady rancher representing the Gila Permittees Association. At one point she practically hissed into the microphone that she didn't want any damn subsidies, just the right to protect her own livestock. The other person I felt ranchers might be able to trust - remember I said might - was that dang Apache lawyer. I can see the new movie already: here's Jane Wayne surrounded by the bad guys. Her six-guns are blazin' but she's just about out of bullets, probably wondering if she should plant the last one in her own head. Suddenly, there's a cloud of dust on the horizon and up drives a spiffy Apache lawyer in his red BMW. On the skyline loom reinforcements - Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Blackfoot, Navajo, Lakota, Paiute, Tohono O'odham, Hidatsa, Comanche, Cherokee - ranchers all. Hey, maybe even the dang Crows will get on the right side this time?

Or maybe I just need a drink.

Thirty-five years ago a blue-eyed, much younger, Barney Nelson somehow passed herself off as an Apache and entered a San Carlos all-Indian rodeo in the barrel race. They, of course took her money; she didn't take theirs. This article definitely does not represent any official organization's opinion and was written strictly as one frustrated citizen. She holds a doctorate in environmental literature and teaches at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas.

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