The Beef With Wolves

In or around 1940, Eugene Cleveland Holder shot and killed the last Mexican gray wolf in Arizona. More than 60 years later, his grandson Will Holder and wife Jan -- fourth-generation ranchers who live and raise cattle in the middle of a wolf recovery zone -- scream, throw rocks and dance around like drunks upon seeing a predator near their livestock. But they don’t shoot.

“It’s karmic justice,” says Jan Holder. “The wolf is here to stay. We’re just trying to figure out how to live with it and still be able to raise cattle.

“Whenever you see a wolf you make a lot of noise and act insane,” Holder continues. “You scream, you holler, you wave your arms. You bang pot and pans together. You throw rocks -- they don’t like that. Mainly we just act like a bunch of idiots. We’ve found out that works pretty good.”

The Holders are part of the Wolf Country Beef program in Arizona and New Mexico that teams cattle ranchers with Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization well known for its efforts to restore wolf populations in the lower 48 states. Participants allow the recolonization of the gray wolf on their private lands and will not use lethal controls on coyotes, wolves and other predators. Any losses dues to wolf predation are reimbursed by Defenders.

In exchange, the meat the wolf-friendly ranchers produce bears a “Wolf Country Beef” label -- like the Holder’s organic Urban’s Natural Beef -- that identifies their product and their company as working to assist with the recovery of gray wolves. The Wolf Country beef is sold in grocery stores as the environmentally friendly choice, making red meat green. (Think dolphin-friendly tuna, and salmon-safe farmers, who agree to reduce runoff into nearby spawning grounds.)

Holder says 39 wolves currently roam the 7,000-square-mile Blue Range Recovery area in the Apache-Sitegreaves and Gila national forests of Arizona and New Mexico. Biologists hope to be tracking 100 wolves in the recovery area by 2008.

Many cattle ranchers, however, would still rather shoot first and ask questions later.

Shortly before the Defender’s first release of wolves in New Mexico, a group of opponents led by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the re-introduction, arguing that wolves would cause “irreparable harm” to the cattle. The case was thrown out in ’99.

Now, these same opponents may get some help from the Bush Administration.

Just when gray wolves are beginning to make a tentative comeback in the U.S., Interior Secretary Gale Norton is expected to weaken federal protection for wolves by the end of January, making it easier to kill wolves in the few places they survive throughout their historic range. The Bush Administration has also indicated that it will back away from a Clinton Administration proposal to initiate wolf recovery in the Northeast states.

Nina Fascione, a Defenders vice president, calls this “a precursor to de-listing,” meaning that Norton will move to have wolves removed from the list of threatened animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.

In the early 1900s, ranchers lobbied Congress to eradicate so-called “nuisance animals.” Within 40 years, the gray wolf was virtually hunted and poisoned out of existence. The gray wolf was put on the endangered species list in 1976, nearly six years after the animal was last seen in the U.S.

In recent years, Defenders of Wildlife has played a key role in reintroducing gray wolves to the Southwestern states, “but the job isn’t done yet,” says Fascione. “Of course, our ultimate goal is de-listing, but only after the job is finished.”

A coalition of more than 20 conservation and animal activism groups, including Defenders, the Wolf Recovery Foundation, Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the United States have called on Norton not to weaken federal protection for wolves.

“Where wolves have returned, their continued success must be secured through increased numbers and distribution,” says Dr. Elizabeth Stallman, a wildlife scientist with the Humane Society. “Unfortunately the Bush Administration is not taking the steps necessary to achieve these goals. Indeed, it seems they are trying to distance themselves as much as possible from wolf recovery.”

Jan Holder says she has yet to lose a cow to a wolf. The Holder’s ranch sits on the edge of Arizona’s Apache National Forest. She says they run about 500 cows in the Apache-Sitegreaves district -- down from almost 2,000 because of the state’s severe drought.
A herder -- right now, Jan’s husband, Will -- stays with the cattle 24 hours a day.

The key to predator-friendly ranching, Holder says, is teaching the cows to be afraid of wolves, coyotes and cougars, and teaching predators to be afraid of humans and dogs. This means teaching the herd to bunch up because a stray animal who has separated from the herd is more likely to be picked off by a hungry mountain lion.

The Holders have also stopped de-horning their cattle, allowing the animals to protect themselves from carnivores.

“When you see pictures of cattle in Africa, they all have horns, and they all bunch in with their heads facing outwards and their butts in the center of the ring,” Holder says. “If a predator tries to attack, all [the cows] go after it.”

Another often-overlooked benefit of predator-friendly ranching, says Holder, is that wolves play an important role in the ecosystem by preventing overgrazing. When predators threaten cattle, the cows are more likely to eat less and keep moving from food source to food source. They are also more likely to stay with the herd, and make fewer divots in the ground with their hooves.

Wolves have improved the re-introduction of some grasses on the range and are helping to end the over-grazing of the Apache-Sitegreaves forest.

“So ideally we will be producing more grass, losing less cattle and reintroducing wolves,” Holder says. “And it also keeps the cattle away from the wolves, instead of the reverse, keeping the wolves away from the cattle, which doesn’t work.”

Meanwhile Defenders and other conservation groups lobby Washington as the Administration continues to quietly roll back federal rules.

“We’re taking bets as to when it’s going to happen,” Fascione says.

Defenders and other enviros point to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Dec. 31 decision that imported tuna caught with huge nets that encircle and drown dolphins can still be sold as "dolphin-safe," as long as onboard observers certify that no dolphins were killed or injured. The ruling was seemingly slipped under the radar while the rest of the U.S. was on holiday, preparing to ring in the New Year.

A month prior, Fascione predicted a 3:30pm, Dec. 23 wolf ruling by the Bush Administration. "Before everyone leaves for the holiday," she forecast. Luckily, she was wrong -- for now.

Jessica Lyons is a writer based in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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