Leader of the Pack
Southwest nights became noticeably quieter when the Mexican gray wolf vanished three decades ago. Today wolf howls pierce the air once again as an Apache tribe in Arizona spearheads a biological and cultural renaissance.
By Daniel Glick
In the lobby of the White Mountain Apache tribe's Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Division headquarters, a row of stuffed animals greets visitors like a furry receiving line. Arrayed across the floor, a monstrous eight-point elk, a bighorn sheep, a mountain lion, a pronghorn, a white-tailed deer, and various other creatures stand at stiff attention. The entrance gallery also includes an ancient, scruffy wolf. Unlike the other animals, which have roamed throughout this southeastern Arizona reservation for as long as anybody can remember, no wolves had been seen or heard here for more than 30 years. Until recently.
As the 21st century dawned, the tribal leadership welcomed the endangered ba'cho back to its ancestral Apache home, ushering in a revolutionary partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to manage endangered species and facilitate an ambitious carnivore reintroduction. Today, this decaying display of bad canid taxidermy serves as a reminder of what was once lost—as well as a quirky monument to the wolf's hard-fought return.
Like the Apache and many other Indian tribes, the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi ) was systematically chased and exterminated with extreme prejudice yet has managed to endure. Trapped, hunted, and poisoned to the brink of extinction during the previous centuries' species-cide of predators to make the West safer for livestock, this wolf subspecies was almost literally on its last paws. Like the whooping crane, the black-footed ferret, and the California condor, the Mexican wolf had been wiped out to the point where you could count the remaining number of wild individuals on two hands. “It's the same thing that happened to us,” says 30-year-old Krista Beazley, a biologist who manages the tribe's wolf recovery program and whose ancestors were forced to forsake their nomadic ways and settle on this reservation after President Ulysses Grant created it in 1871.
The White Mountain Apache tribe has a long history of progressive land management, spurred by old stories that stress a connection between humans and animals. (“Long ago, when the animals talked . . .” begins many an Apache tale.) The relationship of the culture to the landscape is deeply entwined, reflected in the essential word shi ne´, which invokes the inseparability of mind and land and is central to the Apache worldview. “As a people we draw our identity and our culture from our land,” says the tribe's chairman, Dallas Massey Sr.
The wolf is just one beneficiary of this spiritual and historical connection. Long before the Apache trout was listed as threatened on the endangered-species list by the federal government, for example, tribal land managers had begun revegetating streams, creating buffer zones for logging, and carefully tending trout hatchlings. The reservation today boasts increasingly healthy populations of threatened Mexican spotted owls and Apache trout as well as trophy elk and deer, bears, and mountain lions. “In Apache tradition, the tribe does not manage its lands for the benefit of one particular species,” says Cynthia Dale, the tribe's sensitive-species coordinator.
It is with the wolf reintroduction, however, that the tribe has put its beliefs to the test. Apache cattle ranchers, like their counterparts elsewhere in the West, display little fondness for wolves, which are known to prey on cows and sheep. Apache outfitters who see wolves as competition for their clients' trophy elk and deer have voiced uneasiness about the returning wolves' potential effects on their livelihoods. Despite these concerns, says Massey, the traditional warrior songs and stories tell how Wolf used to live and hunt on the same lands as the Apache. Nurturing those ancient traditions while fostering modern economic development remains a key goal for the tribal leadership. “The coexistence of humans and the animals is still a big part of our culture that is being passed on today,” says Massey—whether through fathers and sons hunting together, or by the tribe's support for returning the lost ba'cho to reservation lands.
In 1998, three years after the successful gray wolf reintroduction began in the northern Rockies, the FWS implemented a much more complex program to bring the Mexican wolf back to the Southwest. This subspecies, the southernmost occurring and most genetically distinct of all wolf subspecies, is on the whole slightly smaller than its northern cousins (males can weigh up to 80 pounds and grow to more than five feet in length) and sports a thick gray, rust, tan, and black fur. It is also far rarer.
Listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, the Mexican wolf began its tortuous road toward recovery in the late 1970s, when the FWS sent a trapper to Mexico. He brought back five wolves—the last documented wild members of the subspecies in Mexico or anywhere. Other captive individuals from zoos were added to create a founder population of seven surviving members. Over time dozens of wolves were bred in captivity at several facilities in New Mexico and raised with minimum exposure to humans. The ultimate goal: releasing them in the wild to form packs, mate, disperse, and create a self-sustaining population.
Tribal lands provide crucial habitat for wildlife, comprising nearly 60 million acres in the lower 48 plus an additional 40 million acres in Alaska.
Finally, in March 1998, 11 of these wolves were released with much fanfare into a narrowly defined “recovery zone” on national forest land in Arizona, east and south of the White Mountain Apache reservation. Unfortunately, the wolf welcome wagon included a platter of bullets. Five wolves were shot that same year—including the mother of the first documented wild-born Mexican wolf pup in more than 25 years. (The pup disappeared and was presumed dead.) In subsequent years other released wolves met truck bumpers, and at least one was killed by a mountain lion. Others had to be recaptured by FWS officials when the animals wandered out of the relatively small area allotted for their new homeland.
As the FWS had learned in other wolf reintroductions, modern American predator management often presents far more political snags than biological ones. For biologists working with gray wolves in the northern Rockies, it was comparatively easy to translocate animals caught in Canada, where they were plentiful, and place them in the vast wild country around Yellowstone and in sparsely populated pockets of Idaho. (The political hurdles, however, continue to this day with a highly charged debate over whether to delist the Yellowstone-region wolves.)
The Mexican gray wolf's recovery, still a work in progress, faced a higher set of hurdles. Not only was there no healthy population of Mexican wolves in the wild to be translocated, but the area chosen for the reintroduction, in eastern Arizona, lacked the enormous tracts of contiguous, federally designated wilderness areas, virtually uninhabited by humans, that helped make the Yellowstone and central Idaho wolf reintroduction a success. The Mexican wolf's survival rested on the ability of those seven founder wolves to reproduce in captivity; have their offspring learn to hunt in the wild; whelp wild-born pups; form new packs and give birth to second-generation wild pups; stay within artificially designated boundaries; and survive the deep-seated antipathy and fear that spawned the annihilation of the wolves in the first place. A tall order.
Enter the White Mountain Apache tribe. In 2000 the Fish and Wildlife Service signed a historic agreement with the tribe, whose 1.6 million acres of high-altitude spruce-fir, ponderosa pine, and pinyon-juniper country, adjacent to the original recovery area on national forest lands in Arizona, provided much-needed additional habitat for the wolves to roam. The tribal council originally considered three options for dealing with the FWS wolf reintroduction: remove wolves that stray onto reservation land; allow wolves released in national forests to form packs on the reservation; or allow the agency to release wolves on White Mountain Apache land. At first the council decided on the second option. (The neighboring San Carlos Apache tribe, to the south, which has a more powerful ranching constituency, insisted that the FWS remove any wolves that set foot on their reservation.) Soon wolves that had been released off the White Mountain rez formed packs on reservation land.
The tribe's role in the recovery has taken on increased importance in the past five years, as wild-born pups have indeed dispersed to form new packs that use the reservation for all or part of the year. The expansion of wolf recovery habitat to include reservation lands was a big milestone in the wolf's ongoing recovery, says Chuck Hayes of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and a member of a multi-agency management group for the wolf. “Without the White Mountain Apache tribe's support, I don't think the program would work,” says Hayes.
While opening up a larger swath of habitat for the wolves, the tribe's participation also provides a powerful metaphor for the cultural and biological renaissance extending across Indian country. The experience of the White Mountain Apaches represents an emerging frontier of wildlife management, where tribal lands, comprising nearly 60 million acres in the lower 48 plus an additional 40 million acres in Alaska, provide increasingly appealing habitat for wildlife that is suffering elsewhere. The Quinault, in Washington, have made strides in salmon recovery, for example, and in Idaho the Nez Perce have been instrumental in the gray wolf success story. Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado and the author of Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, writes that since tribes are generally land-based peoples with a belated but growing legal authority to administer their own lands, it makes sense that they have moved aggressively into natural resource management. “You see it everywhere,” he says.
In 2005 the Bush administration highlighted the work of the White Mountain Apache tribe as an “exemplary” model of conservation partnerships. Steve Torbit, tribal lands director for the National Wildlife Federation, who has worked with the White Mountain Apaches, would like their example to be followed elsewhere. “They're not only the best hope, they're the leaders,” he says. “The tribes are showing us how to do it.”
Driving east from Phoenix through miles of desert scraped bare to make room for sprawling subdivisions, it's readily apparent why the White Mountain reservation, 190 miles away, attracts wolves and other wildlife. Population pressures and housing prices have pushed people ever farther from Phoenix, transforming small towns like Globe, about 90 miles away, into commuter towns linked to Phoenix by expanding highways. The development essentially hits a wall at two adjacent Apache reservations—the White Mountain and the San Carlos—that look like oases from the population surge that has brought strip malls and chain stores to formerly sleepy Arizona mountain towns on the edge of reservation lands.
Entering the town of Whiteriver, headquarters of the White Mountain Apache tribe, the slower rhythms of modern Indian country take over. A local radio station broadcasts birthday greetings in Apache, kids on skateboards wearing hoodies practice kick-flips outside a convenience store, and women set up makeshift food stalls selling fry bread on a street corner. The White Mountain reservation suffers from many of the problems endemic to Indian country, from high unemployment to alcoholism and drug use. But there's little of the conspicuous poverty that defines many reservations and other parts of rural America, and there are obvious signs of economic activity. The tribally owned timber company runs a mill near the center of Whiteriver. On the northern edge of the rez, the Hon-Dah casino supplies a key economic engine, as does trophy elk hunting, which attracts outsiders to the reservation for hunts that can bring in more than $19,000 per hunter.
I drop in at tribal headquarters to visit with Ronnie Lupe, the 75-year-old former chairman and a current tribal councilman. Lupe was largely responsible for a sea change in the federal government's dealings with Indian tribes, when, in the 1970s, he spearheaded an effort to take control of reservation forestlands from the destructive logging targets set by the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. He instituted a sustainable-cut policy that helped ensure that the tribe's wildlife—including endangered species that would be formally identified later—would have a place to survive.
In the 1990s Lupe helped former Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie hammer out a new way to manage endangered species on tribal lands. He says he once asked Beattie to throw the lawyers out of the room during negotiations, and sat with her until the two of them drafted a Statement of Relationship in the tribe's council chambers. “History was made in this room,” he says. Lupe takes me to his office and displays, with great satisfaction, a Secretarial Order dated July 7, 1997, signed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and himself, among others (Beattie died from brain cancer in 1996), which designated the tribe as the lead agency in endangered-species protection on tribal lands and provided a mechanism for the FWS to pay tribal members to administer the programs.
After the agreement was inked, the incipient Mexican wolf reintroduction offered the White Mountain Apaches an opportunity to find a place for the endangered ba'cho, whose howls elders like Lupe remember piercing their childhood nights. Now that the Mexican wolf has a toehold again, he says, there's a good chance the animals will reestablish themselves as one of several top predators in a fully functioning ecosystem on reservation lands. Lupe leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. “That's how these wolves ended up here,” he says with evident pride.
Tribal wolf biologist beazley, just back from maternity leave after giving birth to her third child, hops in a truck along with wolf technician Deon Hinton and me to see if we can track where the wild things are once again. On this mid-November day, after two months off, Beazley wants to catch up on what the wolves have been up to. Several outfitters and hunters have recounted stories about seeing uncollared wolves stalking elk during the fall hunt, and she suspects there may be even more wolves out there than she or the FWS know about. There have been strange reports of wolves eating snowmobile seats and dog food, of wolves trailing along with cattle herds for miles because they seemed to want to be herd dogs rather than carnivores, and of wolves imitating elk bugling while stalking herds.
Beazley, the daughter of a rancher and one of a declining number of younger bilingual Apaches still steeped in the traditional ways, is a perfect bridge linking sometimes competing worlds: between the old Apache ways and the modern mall-seeking youth, between the mostly Anglo FWS biologists and the tribe's wildlife department, between the wolf haters in the ranching community and the wolf lovers on the reservation. “They know me. I grew up with them. They know my dad,” says Beazley, who received a tribal scholarship to go to Northern Arizona University, where she earned a degree in biology. She graduated just as the tribe entered into the Mexican wolf partnership with the FWS, and applied to run the tribe's wolf program.
Her days are full, sometimes conducting howling surveys and sometimes tracking wolf packs using radiotelemetry. Beazley has worked with local cattle associations to attach color-coded ear tags to cows for identification in case of wolf depredation, and is available to investigate and mitigate any incidents of the animals harassing cattle. She visits with local outfitters to hear their fears about wolves interfering with the elk hunts, and conducts scat surveys to see what the wolves have been eating (mostly ungulates like elk). As a biologist, Beazley tends to see the more positive sides of wolves, like the way bald eagles and black bears feast on wolf kills, or the way the wolves tend to take down sick and weak members of elk herds. She visits the local schools to teach kids about the wolf's return, and even hired a cowboy to monitor wolves and livestock to reduce depredation. “This is what I was brought up to do,” she says.
We drive through forest edges, which open into high, grassy meadows where the elk congregate. “Our reservation is prime habitat for these wolves,” Beazley says. We can't pick up a signal, but eventually we see some fresh wolf scat on the washboard road. Given that the federal government began the reintroduction, she says, it seems inevitable that the wolves would come on the rez whether or not they were welcome. “I'd rather our own tribal members run the program,” she says—and run it well. “It would set sovereignty back 50 years if the feds came back,” she says.
For now things seem to be going well. In 2003 the tribal council upped the ante in its participation, approving a release of captive-bred wolves on reservation land: an alpha male, an alpha female, and multiple pups. They formed the Hon-Dah pack, which means “welcome” in the Apache language. Although one adult was shot by a hunter and another killed by a mountain lion, the program as a whole took a turn for the better, with documented second- and third-generation wild-born litters from wild-born parents.
“To the Apache people, every living thing is respected,” says Beazley. Her own respect for wolves has grown with every sighting, as she witnesses how at home they are in the reservation's wild country. She recalls one of her encounters, when she approached two sleeping wolves nestled in a groove between two pine trees, staying perfectly dry in a driving rainstorm. From five feet away, she stared at the male, which was twitching his legs and making noises, even as Beazley stood there, wet and shivering. “This wolf was dreaming,” she says.
The ironies of looking to Indian lands for wildlife management are hard to miss, especially considering the federal government's shameful record of deceit and broken treaties. Many Indian tribes were originally forced onto lands that were seen as being too remote and too resource-poor to be valuable. Recent American Indian history is rife with controversial proposals to use reservations as dumping grounds—including for radioactive and hazardous wastes. Now that wildlife managers and environmentalists are setting their sights on undeveloped reservation lands for species conservation, some tribal members have become nervous that reservations will be seen as artificial game parks for nongame species because of increasing conflicts on federal lands. “Although the reservation provides habitat for many species, it's not a wildlife refuge,” says Cynthia Dale, the sensitive-species coordinator. “It's an Apache homeland.”
Moreover, the budding relationship between the FWS and the White Mountain tribe continues to present challenges on all sides. Since tribal governments are not eligible for most federal endangered-species money funded through appropriations, the FWS has to find ways to help the White Mountain tribe pay for the equipment and manpower required to monitor the wolves. Slowly the tribe and the federal agency are building trust, and the FWS has promised more money for tribal members to collar wolves and continue their trapping and monitoring program. The tribe's management plan allows for up to 30 wolves, or five to six family groups, on reservation land, and Dale says the tribe may be approaching those goals. (The tribe declines to give exact numbers and considers such data to be proprietary information.) John Oakleaf, the Mexican wolf field coordinator for the FWS recovery team, estimates that approximately 50 to 60 Mexican wolves exist in the wild.
White Mountain Apache tribal chairman Massey believes the tribe's relationship with the FWS—as a full partner in the Mexican wolf recovery—has been solid. Sitting in his spacious office at tribal headquarters, he tells me the council's decision to allow the ba'cho onto tribal lands was reached with a broad consensus, and that political support on the reservation remains strong because the elders insist on it. “They reminded us that a long time ago they used to listen to the wolves howling,” says Massey. He has heard concerns about the wolf population growing too big, but for the time being at least he believes support for the wolf reintroduction remains strong. If the wolf starts to cause too many problems or too much economic damage, he says, the tribe is within its rights to call off its cooperation.
Massey knows that the rarity of hearing and seeing wolves on the reservation might create opportunities in the future. “It's really something to see them out there,” he says. There's a sense of satisfaction in his voice that with the wolf's return the reservation is more complete again. He believes that tribal lands are special for many reasons, and that the rest of the world is beginning to understand just how special. “Where in this world, in this state, can you go to hear a wolf howling?” he asks. “Not many places anymore.”
Daniel Glick is the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (Public Affairs, 2003).