Mexican gray wolf, photo by Joel Sartore.
It was October 2007, and I was half-living out of my car while circumnavigating the 6,845-square mile Mexican gray wolf reintroduction area straddling New Mexico and Arizona. I was interviewing stakeholders in the wolf reintroduction project for my master’s thesis. Short on cash, I was camping out and couch-surfing for the two months my project spanned. In late October, I found myself leaving an interview near Alpine, Arizona racing against a setting sun. I had to find a camp site — quickly. The map indicated camping spots about 10 miles down the highway at a place called Luna Lake. When I arrived, the last rays were filtering through the woods, and I discovered a steel swing-gate closing off the camp sites. They were closed for winter, a sign said. (A few days earlier, I’d camped at Big Lake and the first snow of the season piled up on my tent, dumping about two soft inches that night.) With nowhere else to go, I pulled my car onto an off-road vehicle trail near the closed camping area and set up my tent just off the road. Falling asleep, I heard the woods alive with birds and insects calling out their songs.
I awoke a few hours later to a distinct howling. It trailed off to the west of me, and was answered by another howl to the south. Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I dared myself to believe these sounds were emanating from endangered Mexican gray wolves. The howls were forlorn and skipped across octaves, their range seemed musical and foreign. For two or three minutes, the animals howled back and forth from the west and the south. Then a third animal began howling with the second to the south. The two wolves’ howls twined around each other, starting low and simple and climbing upwards in pitch into a complex duet of crescendos ending in a long flat cry. I drifted back to sleep, hoping that it was Canis lupus baileyi roaming in the night. The animal’s howls woke me up three more times that night, each time the three seemed a little closer together, until all their cries sounded off from the south. The last time I heard them, they sounded much more distant as if traveling away from me.
Earlier that day, a biologist had told me that perspectives about Mexican gray wolf reintroduction varied so widely that, as he explained it, two people could be camping in the woods and hear a wolf howl. To one person, it would be the most magical, mystical experience they ever had. To the other, they’d be up all night, clutching a weapon, terrified they were about to be eaten.
I fall in to the mystical and magical experiential category this biologist described. Though to me, the “magic” was simply hearing a set of endangered large predators doing their thing in the singing wilderness, and the hope that stemmed from their presence that maybe someday they’d be back in ecologically effective numbers.
The million dollar question, of course, is how to get their numbers up into the realm of ecological effectiveness. When dealing with the social obstacles raised by people affected by wolf reintroductions (and the presence of other large predators likely to be targeted for conservation, like grizzlies, wolverines and mountain lions), one line of discussion that often comes up is that of incentives.
What incentives can we devise to spark people’s interest in conserving large carnivores — especially people who might otherwise be opposed to their presence, reintroduction or recovery? Continue reading