Newspaper story reveals culturally derived cowardice in New Mexico-AZ Mexican wolf country

August 26, 2006

Those who work recovering wolf populations have long recognized that most of the obstacles are cultural and political, rather than biological. The wolves released in Idaho and Yellowstone faced few biological barriers. They expanded rapidly until they reached some kind of carrying capacity, and then the population leveled off, to fluctuate up and down.

Political animosity was intense, however, much more than cultural hostility. There it was divided with agricultural interests usually showing traditional fear and hostility. In the more urban areas of the 3 state experimental population recovery area, however, there was much more cultural support of the restoration of wolves.

I think that the politics did not match the more moderate cultural position on wolves was due to a lag, the agricultural bias of the state legislatures and other state or congressional office holders in the three states. Wyoming had the least supportive culture and the most hostile politics. In fact, I think the unusual election of a Democratic governor (Dave Freudenthal) in a Republican state suggested to him using strong anti-wolf position as a way of diverting attention away from the substantive changes he wanted to make as a Democrat and toward a popular symbolic issue, in this case wolf hatred (diversion being a common political strategy that has been refined to an art in recent American politics).

Today, wolves are abundant enough in Idaho, NW Wyoming and western Montana to be causing significant ecological changes and in Idaho and Montana, politics may be catching up the less hostile culture.

This brings us to the struggling Mexican wolf restoration project, where the relatively diminutive sub-species of only about 40 wolves is barely hanging on. Mexican wolves face worse biological, cultural and political obstacles than their gray wolf cousin to the north.

First of all, the Mexican wolf was extinct in the wild and the captive Mexican wolves were derived from just a few animals captured which represented the last of their kind. As a result, breeding has to be done carefully to maximize what genetic diversity existed in the source wolves. Moreover, the wolves that are potential reintroductions have to be kept strictly away from human contact, including very careful feeding. Wolves that tolerate human presence cannot be reintroduced. Once reintroduced, the wolves have to learn to hunt, avoid humans, and stay away from livestock.

Politically, the project was almost guaranteed not to be a success because the hopefully wild wolves were put in a politically derived box on the Arizona/New Mexico border. It contained good wolf habitat, but is probably not biologically capable of supporting more than 100 wolves. Good habitat also exists outside the box, and so keeping the wolves inside the box is like keeping ants confined to a square drawn with chalk on a sidewalk.

Culturally there is support for the restoration in two state's urban areas, but the rural areas in or near the box are the most hostile in the country, not just to wolves, but to conservation in general. Because the winner in politics is usually those who are organized rather than those who hold the majority, the folks in Catron County and nearby places have greatly retarded the wolf restoration.

Social scientists study cultures without making value judgments, but when you step outside that role, there's plenty room.

The newspaper article below describes cultural fear, misdirected hostility, and learned cowardice in about as bleak a way as I have ever read in the Western United States. This all about forty or so of these smallish Mexican wolves, although the underlying factor is fear of change. This part of New Mexico and Arizona is notorious for a hostile attitude to outsiders. See for yourself, do a search for "catron 'county movement' ".

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? People in wolf country say this top predator is changing their lives. By: Terence Corrigan, The [White Mountain] Independent.

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