by Leo W. Banks
Dean Warren has a story to tell about how Mexican Gray wolves stole one of the best parts of his life.
He was on horseback on a mountain trail south of Rose Peak, in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, when four wolves attacked him and his six blue tick hounds, setting off a ferocious struggle.
“Picture 10 animals in a dogfight under your horse, and you know what I’m talking about,” says Warren, then a rancher and range deputy for the Greenlee County Sheriff’s Office.
“I’m being attacked by wolves!” he hollered into his police radio. “I need help!”
He yelled and fired shots into the air, but the wolves kept coming. The desperate brawl lasted two hours. Warren’s fighting retreat brought him to Sawmill Cabin, where he closed himself inside a barn, the animals pacing and howling outside.
Something–probably the arrival of rescuers–caused them to quit, and Warren, 62 years old at the time and a crack outdoorsman, headed home, considering himself lucky. If his horse hadn’t been accustomed to dogs, he says he could’ve been thrown to the ground and injured or killed.
But the funny part, the tragic part, the unbelievable part, is the idea of a cowboy, alone, in a death struggle with vicious animals–and what’s running through his mind, apart from not turning into wolf kibble?
“I definitely felt threatened, but I knew that if I shot those wolves, I could pay a huge fine and maybe get years in jail,” says Warren. “Hiring a lawyer would break me. I don’t have that kind of money in my hip pocket.”
Welcome to the government’s version of the Wild West.
THE FIRST MEXICAN GRAYS put paws back on Southwestern soil in 1998 under a program headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, around 40 of them roam throughout and often beyond a roughly 5,000-square-mile area of eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and western New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness.
That number is expected to reach 100 in seven years, when the project will be deemed successful–the wolves a self-reproducing fixture.
Public support for the program has always been high, especially for those viewing it from a distance. But for many who actually live with the wolves, their view of the animals ranges from public nuisances on up to four-legged terrorists.
Warren’s fight happened three years ago, and the news traveled quickly along the straw-hat grapevine. The facts put a chill in everybody’s day, especially the part about one wolf jumping up to put its paws on the horse’s flanks, snapping and growling.
“That scared all of us,” says Dan Groebner, supervisor of Arizona Game and Fish’s wolf field team. “Wolves aren’t supposed to behave that way.”
Dramatic as they were, the details never traveled far beyond ranch country, and probably wouldn’t have been heard if they did. For city environmentalists, the thought of the lobo howling in the wild again–the deep emotion of that concept, the romantic resonance of it–has the power to deafen, even though most probably couldn’t distinguish a wolf call from Sting.
But those scratching out a hardscrabble existence in the wolf recovery area hear a different song–and for some, it sounds like a funeral dirge for a way of life.
“The wolves ate me out of house and home, and I had to quit the cattle business,” says Harold Filleman, patriarch of an eastern Arizona ranching family. “It wasn’t profitable anymore. The only thing we could figure was to pull out and wait until the government stops funding these wolves.”
Like Warren, Filleman lived on Eagle Creek, 30 miles above Clifton. For residents there, and others to the north and east, the wolf program’s troubles–and the sometimes bitter feelings that have resulted–come into sharp view.
The creek meanders along the bottom of a rolling prairie on the edge of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Those who live in this beautiful country speak of it as a kind of paradise, remote, silent and wild.
But paradise has taken hit over the wolf issue. It caused a nasty divide among ranchers, with only one family, Jan and Will Holder, enthusiastically supporting reintroduction. That stand got the couple ostracized by longtime friends.
“Some neighbors wouldn’t talk to us for going over the wolf side,” says Holder. It got so bad that Jan, who runs a natural beef company in nearby Safford, worried that Will “might even get shot out there.” Will volunteers as a wolf guardian with Defenders of Wildlife, a national nonprofit group.
Once on the ground, the wolves did their part to rattle nerves even more. Shortly after their release, they staked out Scott Dieringer’s ranch, about 8 miles above the Creek.
Gary Bowen, who helped Dieringer through the ordeal, said the wolves “created constant turmoil” and behaved so aggressively that if either Scott or his wife went to town, the other had to stay home to keep the animals from attacking their stock and dogs.
Once, in April 1999, the Dieringers looked out their living room window and saw three wolves in their front yard, one entering his corral. Dieringer went outside with a rifle, and after the animals attacked his dog, he fired shots into the air to scare them off.
“The wolves just stood and looked at me,” wrote Dieringer, in a letter to the Eastern Arizona Courier. He threw rocks, but they dodged them. After the wolves chased Dieringer back to his house, he and his wife jumped into their truck and left to get help.
Dieringer didn’t get to see his grandchildren at Easter that year because the ranch was too dangerous to visit. In his letter, Dieringer explained why he’d decided to pack up and leave: “We fear for ourselves, our dogs and our livestock, and feel we have no way to defend ourselves.”
Some in the area say they live with bouts of stress and sleeplessness, wondering if that sound they heard in the night might be a wolf looking for a snack.
Retiree Ed Fitch found a wolf chasing his baby foal and her mother, penned up beside his barn. He ran the wolf off, but not before it forced the foal into a fence, badly cutting her face.
A wolf chased Ed’s wife, Edie, down a hill near their home, and the Fitches say that when they walk their dogs at night, they carry a gun just in case.
THE ELY FAMILY, OF THE 4 Drag Ranch, have just emerged from a hellish period last year, during which an unusually aggressive wolf pack targeted their cattle.
Clifton’s Copper Era newspaper described one episode in which Gary Ely and two cowboys came upon a wolf feeding on the hindquarters of a live heifer.
“The anguishing screams of the calf shocked them all,” Darcy Ely told the paper. “You could hear this horrible wailing. My husband fell apart over this, and so did the rest of the crew.”
The Elys–wrung out and hardly fans of the pro-environmentalist press, according to friends–wouldn’t respond to several messages seeking comment. But one neighbor estimates they lost between 100-200 cows, most to wolves, they contend, each worth a conservative average of $400.
As Darcy Ely told the Copper Era, she and Gary have begged the feds to come out to their wolf-cattle kill sites; they also moved their cattle to repeatedly to protect them from the wolves. “Now the wolves are in the middle of the pasture,” she says. “Where do we go now?”
The Elys are still hanging on. But of the eight families living along the Creek proper, all of whom ran cattle in the late 1990s, only two do so now, according to Frank Hayes, chief of the Forest Service’s Clifton district, a reduction in cattle numbers of 70 percent.
It’s not because of wolves, he says. It’s the drought. Ranchers agree the drought has been bad, but say piling wolves on top of it has creamed their bottom lines.
And Chase Caldwell, Dieringer’s former business partner, says the drought had nothing to do with their troubles. When their ranch came under siege, the drought wasn’t as bad as it is now.
“It was strictly wolves that created all of our problems,” says Caldwell, a Phoenix-area real estate broker who invests in ranch properties. “When you have a predator targeting your calf crop, that’s hard to deal with.”
Is that true? Are wolves the cattle killers ranchers claim they are?
Ask government wolfers and get ready for a tense silence. They don’t want to talk about it much, but they will squeeze out a few numbers.
They confirm only 39 wolf-cattle kills, with 16 more possible or probable, in the entire recovery area since 1998, according to John Oakleaf, field projects coordinator. On Eagle Creek proper, they confirm, as of this writing, a grand total of three since 1998.
If you want to hear a pissed-off chuckle, mention those numbers to a rancher.
What about the Elys’ loss of 100-200 head? “Those cows are missing,” says Oakleaf. “No one knows what happened to them. But we’re looking into it.”
Both sides acknowledge that making a firm determination is difficult in country brimming with predators, especially mountain lions. Old-timer Filleman agrees that lions have always plagued the Creek and areas beyond.
“But they don’t kill wholesale like these wolves,” he says.
Caldwell adds, “If you’ve got a problem lion, you can shoot it. With wolves, there’s nothing you can do, because they’re protected.”
Even when investigators for Wildlife Services, the federal agency that looks into wolf depredations, finds a kill site, days might’ve passed and the ground has been picked clean. No body, no crime–and most importantly for ranchers–no payout from Defenders of Wildlife, which compensates ranchers for confirmed wolf kills.
Defenders wins praise from pro-wolfers, who say they stepped up to provide money to ranchers, which the federal government should’ve done. For its trouble–for trying to bridge the gap between ranchers and wolf program managers–Craig Miller, the group’s southwest director, told the Eastern Arizona Courier he’s received death threats on his Tucson telephone.
Tensions are high. Allegations fly.
Filleman, whose grazing land is 25 miles east of Eagle Creek, says he was compensated for one calf, even though he’s sure–but can’t prove–that wolves killed 20, possibly 25.
“We know they killed one of my saddle horses,” says Filleman. “I’d rode him the day before, and these two Fish and Wildlife people let those wolves eat him plum up before they contacted us, I guess so they wouldn’t have pay for it.
“The wolves ate our cattle, too, but Fish and Wildlife didn’t want us knowing anything about that, either. They wanted the evidence gone so they couldn’t prove anything. That’s how they work.”
Filleman, now 83, now sits in his home in York while his house on the Creek lies empty. Along with wife, Jeanette, they have plenty of time to ponder what happened to their life, make phone calls to politicians and write letters.
“Nobody even gets back to us,” he says. “We don’t know where to turn.”
TRUTH IS, RANCHERS HAVE despised wolves from the beginning of time, and rural eastern Arizona is still deeply traditional.
“Any time you mention endangered species or setting aside wilderness, ranchers here go bonkers,” says Karen Williams, who runs Safford’s Eastern Arizona Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. “You get an over-reaction to anything, not just wolves. But this is the first time a predator has been re-introduced.”
It was done badly, too, in Williams’ view, especially releasing wolves during a drought, when their natural prey population is down, forcing them to seek alternatives.
Also, the captive breeding programs the wolves come from allow so much contact with humans that the animals no longer fear people. Some even associate the sound of pickup trucks with feeding time.
She says the animals should’ve been trained to keep away from people and cows by installing an electric fence inside their enclosure and stocking the area behind it with cattle. When a wolf moves too close–zap.
“Even if it means shooting them with beanbags, do it,” says Williams, who says wild-born pups should do better. “Be mean to these guys. Then you won’t have them coming into somebody’s camp and curling up by the fire to get warm, acting like a dog.”
But federal managers haven’t done that, says Williams, because of their “touchy-feely approach” to handling wildlife. When rehabilitators get hold of a special animal, they tend to want their pictures taken beside it, and even try to bond with it.
The wolves need to be monitored, no question, says Williams–from as far away as possible.
But then there are those who see the wolf as an icon rather than a real wild creature, a symbol of nature pure, part of a glorious past that surely can happen again if these local huckleberries with their inconvenient lives would only step out of the way.
That’s the attitude federal managers have displayed toward rural residents from the start of the wolf program.
“All along we met with Fish and Wildlife and told them what we wanted, made suggestions and were repeatedly ignored,” says Jan Holder. “They had no intention of listening to people on the land. They don’t consider them very intelligent, and that’s the truth.”
Holder, who serves as program manager for the nonprofit Gila Watershed Partnership in Graham and Greenlee Counties, a water issues group, says much of what her neighbors feared about the wolf program has come true, and she has a message for city folk who support reintroduction:
“Even though Will and I want these wolves, everyone needs to realize what it has done financially. It’s devastating. What’s happening in this whole watershed is frightening. There are fewer farmers because of the drought, and ranchers are disappearing, too. People in urban areas say ‘get another job,’ but there aren’t any.
“Graham and Greenlee Counties are among the poorest in the state. When you talk about all these regulations governing how we handle tiny species, then put wolf re-introduction on top of that, a rancher might lose $10,000 a year, and that’s breaking backs out here. People are losing their homes, their culture and way of life.”
But Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that filed the initial lawsuit to get the wolves returned, says ranchers always blame lawsuits and bureaucrats for their bad business conditions.
“Ninety-five percent of ranchers’ problems are due to drought and overgrazing, and five percent to environmental protection,” says Suckling.
He adds that the wolves that caused the trouble around Eagle Creek have been removed, and many of them died in the process. They’re the big losers, says Suckling, not the ranchers. He acknowledges wolves have eaten a few cows, but says they “have no practical effect on ranchers.”
But ranchers say the presence of wolves basically doubles their work. Cattle must be moved more often to keep them away from these new predators, and cowboys sometimes have to camp overnight with their herds to keep the wolves away.
And if wolves are afoot, a rancher can’t bring his cow dogs, hugely valuable in sniffing out and holding a cow for the cowboy. “The work is much harder and longer without dogs,” says Barbara Marks, who ranches south of Alpine.
ANOTHER ISSUE: THE RULES governing dog protection really crack ranchers’ chaps. Unless a wolf is threatening humans, a pet owner can only wave his arms, scream and fire in the air to drive it off.
Can’t hit it with a six-pack. Can’t bash it with a stick. Can’t do anything that might harm the wolf.
Emer Wiltbank, who runs a guest ranch in Sprucedale on the Black River, lost his pet when wolves approached his back porch where his dog was sleeping with her pups. The dog went out to defend her babies, creating a 5 a.m. fight.
By the time Wiltbank got outside, all he could do was fire into the air to scatter the wolves. But by then, his dog was dead. Even if he’d been on the scene, and the wolf was determined enough, there was little he could’ve done beyond hollering.
When Fish and Wildlife arrived, they suggested it was Wiltbank’s fault for not chaining his dog to his own porch. “I won’t tell you what I said to them,” says Wiltbank. “I wasn’t very nice.”
After that, Wiltbank’s daughter, who lives a quarter mile away, wouldn’t allow her child to walk to his house, and two guests got so unnerved they left.
Government wolf experts say the animals become territorial toward dogs mainly during spring breeding. But the Wiltbank episode occurred last fall.
And Wildlife Service’s own hunter, J.R. Murdock–who tracks and kills problem predators–found himself in a frightening dust-up when wolves attacked his dogs while he was hunting a lion, scaring years off him.
The embarrassing incident, which Wildlife Services refuses to talk about, reportedly occurred last October.
Warren says government wolfers will be continually surprised by wolf behavior because they know little about these predators they’ve put back, or the outdoors in general.
“They aren’t outdoors people,” says Warren. “They haven’t burned up the horsehair and the saddle blankets I have. You have to be on the land and be part of the land to make these environmental decisions. You can’t do it from a textbook or through a window.”
AN UNEASY CALM HAS settled on the Eagle Creek area. The Francisco pack, one of those that staked out the Elys’ cattle, has been removed. But beforehand, they ranged west onto the San Carlos Reservation.
The same drama played out there. An Apache rancher on the reservation’s northeast corner claimed the wolves gobbled 80 to 90 of his calves, according to Harold Nofchissey, of the tribe’s wildlife department. But Fish and Wildlife won’t confirm a single kill on San Carlos in 2003.
Nevertheless, the agency responded to the tribe’s demand to get the animals off their land, and six of the seven have been removed.
But how long the quiet lasts is unknown. Chase Caldwell says he intends to try again, stocking up on cattle in the future. He also expects the wolves to return.
“They like to eat livestock. They’ll find us,” says Caldwell. “Look, I’m not anti-wolf. Predators are part of what make that area so attractive. But you have to be able to protect your livestock.”
Groebner acknowledged there will always be some problem wolves. Nineteen such animals have been permanently removed since 1998. He says that’s not many, considering that the number of wolf days stands at a minimum of 20,000–a wolf day is one wolf on the ground for one day.
In the past six months, his agency, Game and Fish, has taken a more active role in on-the-ground management of the program, which many welcome. The agency’s head, Joe Carter, a Safford native, is likely to listen to locals, and he knows the program has troubles, describing it to one newspaper as in “disarray.”
Groebner says G&F might re-work rules governing protection of pets, and he touts a study underway on Eagle Creek to tag cows to determine what predators are doing the killing.
“It’s frustrating to realize that some people there are hurting,” he says. “If we thought it was just wolves doing it, we wouldn’t have wolves there. They don’t make it easier, but there’s a cumulative effect of things wearing on people. We feel bad and are really trying to do something.”
But when ranchers hear government wolfers talk about boosting the number of animals to 100 wolves, they grit their teeth. “Holy mackerel, if we’re having these problems with 40, it’s scary to think about 100,” says Marks.
Jan Holder, still optimistic the wolves can win rural support, says ranchers need to change the way they ranch to accommodate wolves, and she has a suggestion for city-dwellers eager to help wolves: Stop giving money to lawsuit-happy environmental groups and instead buy gifts this Christmas from predator-friendly companies.
Holder says environmental lawsuits over the years have so hardened positions, turning every issue into a war, that by the time wolf reintroduction came along, ranchers had stopped listening.
“The thought of having to give up what their ancestors built is a horrible thing, and that’s what the wolf is to them,” says Holder. “It’s a symbol of everything they’ve been beaten up with. We need to find common ground, and keeping these issues away from lawyers would help. To me, the wolf isn’t the real problem.”
But Warren, who sold and left Eagle Creek, doesn’t want to hear any defense of wolves. He lived there 15 years and loved it more than words can say. But it became too much–wolves in his yard, wolves running through his camps, wolves harassing his hounds.
“The stress they caused is enormous,” says Warren. “I’d be out working fences or laying pipe, and I always had that old yellow eye looking down on me. It became impossible to live there. If it wasn’t for the major holdings people have, it’d just be picnickers and retirees left out there.”
Like most ranchers, he believes that was the true purpose of wolf reintroduction–getting ranchers off public land, permanently and forever.
“That’s it, partner,” Warren says. “That’s the whole deal, right there.”