Mexican wolves – smaller and often redder than their northern cousins, the Rocky Mountain gray wolves – have been having a hard time trying to recover down in New Mexico and Arizona. Physically, it’s harsher country – drier and rockier, less productive than the northern Rockies – and it’s also a less-accepting place sociologically. The gray wolves have not always been exactly celebrated unanimously in the north, but I believe even greater fear and loathing exists in some of the ranchers down in the Southwest, particularly on the marginal, drought-stressed public lands where those ranchers – like the wolves – are trying to hang on.
The wolves almost didn’t make it back to this country at all, meager though their clinghold is now. Wolves are one of the most adaptable large social mammals in the world, possessing what biologists call plasticity – second only to our own in their ability to adapt to a variety of habitats. Wolves prosper in a variety of wild habitats, while we excel at manipulating ours.
And one of the things we have manipulated has been wolves. Our atrocities and lack of imagination on their behalf have been well documented. Murmuring, shimmering in the wolves’ blood, however, remains a clamant genius to survive and prosper. This life force remained in them even after we had killed off all the Mexican wolves in the wild, save for a handful of zoo captives that lay in patient generational wait for the day, decades later, when their offspring would be released back onto the land from which they had been taken; just because we buried that clamant genius for several decades did not mean it went away.
Not all ranchers in the Southwest fear or hate the wolf, sight unseen, and fewer do today than nearly 15 years ago when the wolves were first released back into the Blue Range on the New Mexico-Arizona border. Two heroes – visionaries and pioneers Will and Jan Holder – have had something to do with that.
For nearly the entirety of those 15 years, the Holders held on in one of the hardest occupations, in one of the most inhospitable environments for such a profession, in the heart of the wolves’ recovering territory. It’s near where Aldo Leopold encountered the wolf in whose dying eyes he would see “a fierce green fire.”
Displaying extreme adaptability, the Holders decided to turn what some would view a liability, wild returning wolves amidst their cattle, into an asset. By leaving the wolves alone and taking extra steps to avoid the wolves (as well as lions and bears) – essentially by practicing greater vigilance, the Holders were able to produce “predator-friendly” beef: cattle raised on land where predator eradication is not practiced. The Holders received up to 180 percent of regular income for their valueadded product, which also carried a “natural beef” rating through their distributor, Ervin’s Natural Beef, a consortium of about 10 ranches, which supplied roughly 150,000 pounds of natural beef.
Ranching neighbors thought they were flat crazy, the Holders say, but their business quadrupled. Since then, a few of the Holders’ neighbors have slowly changed their minds. Jan says some of the neighbors expected the recolonizing wolves to be “monsters” but have found them to be “just one more predator, or in the end, something they could live with and maybe even make some money from.”
A fairy tale would have the Holders succeeding and prospering in this hard land – and the wolves, too. It didn’t quite turn out that way, or it hasn’t yet. The worst drought in recorded history, a faltering economy, and falling beef prices complicated the Holders’ initial success. As with the wolves’ struggle to return, the problem – true for so many extinctions or debilitations – was a cascade of smaller factors that eventually led to more serious leave-taking. Higher management costs due to drought and reduced productivity combined with declining demand (and prices) for any kind of beef, predator-friendly or not, was finally too much to overcome. “A very committed group of people understood and were willing to pay for what we did,” says Will Holder. “But in the end it wasn’t enough.” They picked the worst possible time for their experiment, and still they made it work for a long time. Others are carrying on the practice. Up north, in a greener section of Idaho, rancher Melissa Lines is using Great Pyrenees watchdogs to guard predatorfriendly beef and lambs in a land of mountain lions, bears, coyotes, bobcat and wolves. The Holders’ vision, like the wolves themselves, will carry on into the future.
Adaptability. To pay off debt, Will is now a nurse in a neurosurgery unit in Tucson, and Jan is program coordinator for the Gila Watershed Partnership. They miss the land, and hope to return.
I don’t consider the Holders’ efforts and ideas a failure. Regarding wolf recovery, Will says “Things are, for the most part, better.” Where there were once 11 wolves, there are now 50. “The people around the area have found out that, indeed, wolves do not breathe fire or eat babies. And the wolves are still there.”
We talk a lot in the West these days about the importance of story and story’s role in helping, in some instances, remake and transform a landscape and, in other instances, simply preserve it. But to paraphrase Ed Abbey and Doug Peacock, one act is worth a thousand words. The courage to stand up for ecological protection – whether rancher or environmental activist (or both) in one’s community is what will ultimately save wild country.
Stories are important but so, too, for returning wolves is lots of big wild country and a few supporters in unlikely places who have found a way to accommodate them. The Holders bought time for the returning wolves, regardless of their own stressful conditions, and in so doing gave them one of the rarest things of all: a second chance.