Restoring a Lost Heritage

The White Mountain Apache are giving some of America's most imperiled species a second chance

12-01-2002 // Laura Tangley
National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

WITH SPEED AND STEALTH that could have served her ancestors on a hunt, Krista Beazley descends a slushy hillside, noiselessly dodging the rocks and fallen logs littering the forest floor. Already, the young biologist and member of Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Tribe has lowered the antenna on her telemetry gear, after the signals grew so loud she could hear without it. Above her, vultures and ravens circle a canopy of spruce, fir and ponderosa pine, while coyotes howl from the valley below. Without slowing her stride, Beazley turns and whispers over her shoulder, “I think she’s got a kill!”

A few hundred yards down the slope, Beazley stops suddenly as a patch of gray fur darts behind a jumble of branches and boulders—then just as quickly disappears into the forest. No more than a glimpse, the sight still thrills Beazley and her companions. Known as AF587, the elusive creature they’d spotted was a Mexican gray wolf, one of the rarest and most endangered mammals in the world.

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

Photo: © GEORGE H.H. HUEY

PROTECTING PREDATORS: Once extinct in the wild, Mexican wolves were reintroduced to parts of their native range in 1998. In Arizona, biologist Krista Beazley tracks radio-collared wolves on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Once extinct in the United States, only a few dozen Mexican wolves roam their former habitat in the Southwest today. Two of them, AF587 and her mate, AM674, have established a territory here on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, 194 miles northeast of Phoenix. Twice a week, Beazley maps their locations using a combination of air- and ground-based telemetry, footprints and scat—she rarely actually sees the animals—then charts the wolves’ movements and activities since her previous readings.

Beazley’s work is part of a tribal program to rescue rare species ranging from plants and tiny minnows to charismatic creatures such as spotted owls and the wolves. Rooted in the tribe’s ancient and enduring reverence for the land, the effort also is considered one of the nation’s most progressive. Says biologist Stuart Leon, recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Southwest Region, “The White Mountain Apache are widely recognized as wildlife conservation leaders.”

The smallest subspecies of North American gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf once ranged from central Mexico north through western Texas and much of Arizona and New Mexico, thriving on the region’s abundant deer, elk, pronghorn and other prey. But beginning in the mid-1800s, western ranchers—worried that wolves would kill livestock—began systematically exterminating the predators. In the early 1900s, they enlisted help from the federal government, which launched a massive campaign to poison wolves and pay bounties to hunters who shot them. By 1976, when the animal was finally protected under the Endangered Species Act, it had long since vanished from its U.S. range and was close to extinction in Mexico as well.

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

Photo: © GEORGE H.H. HUEY

SUCCESS STORY: Fisheries biologist Tim Gatewood displays an Apache trout, a species he and other tribe members helped pull back from the brink. After vanishing from 570 miles of streams it once inhabited, the fish is recovering so well it may be removed from the Endangered Species List.

In a last-ditch effort to save the creature, FWS hired a trapper to capture the last remaining wolves in Mexico in the late 1970s. The animals, four males and one pregnant female, formed the basis of a breeding program that significantly boosted wolf numbers in captivity over the following decade. In 1998, government biologists reintroduced a handful of these captive wolves onto national forest land in Arizona.

NWF Program

Conserving Tribal Lands

Assisting the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s efforts to restore the Mexican wolf and other species is just one of several projects sponsored by NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program, which works with tribal councils, managers and activists nationwide. NWF so far has established relationships with more than 100 tribes, focusing on education, wildlife management, advocacy and securing funding for conservation. Recent efforts include helping Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe obtain financial and political support to reintroduce gray wolves; working with the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative to protect and manage buffalo in Yellowstone National Park and Montana; and serving as consultant to the Inter-Tribal Prairie Ecosystem Restoration Consortium. To learn more, see www.nwf.org . To help support NWF’s efforts to protect Mexican gray wolves and other species, see www.nwf.org/helpwolves .

The results of this bold experiment have been mixed. On one hand, the reintroduced wolves—which had never lived outside captivity—learned to act like wild wolves better than many expected. The predators not only have shown they can take down large prey such as elk, they also have bred and successfully reared pups. Opposition to the wolves’ release, on the other hand, has been intense and often deadly, particularly in the project’s early days. Of 13 Mexican wolves released the first year, five were shot to death. According to a Phoenix New Times article published in December 1998, “Nowhere has wolf reintroduction resulted in such a shooting frenzy.”

Today the frenzy has subsided, but hostility toward Mexican wolves—as well as occasional shootings—persist. That’s why wolf advocates were pleased in 2001 when AF587 and her mate wandered out of Apache National Forest and set up a territory on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Not only does the 1.6-million-acre reservation contain plentiful prey and ideal habitat, it has a lower density of both people and cattle than adjacent forest service lands.

Perhaps more important, the White Mountain Apache have accepted the controversial predator. In 1998, the tribe’s council voted to allow wolves that entered the reservation to stay, and it may allow direct releases in the future. The tribe has also drafted a scientifically sound wolf management plan, hired biologist Beazley and, last spring, signed a formal cooperative agreement with FWS, becoming a partner in the federal Mexican wolf recovery program.

By embracing the wolf, the White Mountain Apache are renewing ancient cultural ties to a predator that once hunted game on the same wild and rugged lands as did their ancestors. According to Beazley, Apache warriors used to imitate wolves before embarking upon important raids or hunts, sometimes singing a ritual song asking to borrow the animals’ legendary power. At last spring’s signing ceremony with FWS, her father, Joyner George, sang this song, long since forgotten by most younger tribe members.

The tribe’s participation also boosts the odds that Canis lupus baileyi will recolonize at least part of its native habitat. Unlike many residents of the region, “the White Mountain Apache recognize the value of having a top predator in the ecosystem,” says FWS Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator Brian Kelly. “We expect the tribe to play a key role in bringing the animal back.” Biologist Steve Torbit, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center, goes further: “The White Mountain Apache provide the best, perhaps only, chance for the Mexican wolf to survive in the wild.”

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

© GEORGE H.H. HUEY

WISE MANAGEMENT: The White Mountain Apache protect Mexican spotted owls by closing the bird’s habitat to logging during the breeding season. Unlike the situation in the Pacific Northwest, where spotted owls are often maligned, reservation loggers accept such restrictions in return for limited timber access other times of year. Biologist and tribe member Merle Baha says the birds are thriving, despite the loss of several nests in last summer’s wildfires.

Torbit, who also directs NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program, says the project illustrates the tremendous potential offered by Indian tribes in general. Nationwide, Indian reservations belonging to 550 tribes cover roughly 95 million acres, an area larger than what is protected in all national parks combined. These reservations house at least 125 federally listed threatened or endangered species. And because tribes have the same legal status as do sovereign nations, “they can, and often do, go farther than the federal government when it comes to protecting species that are valuable to their culture and heritage,” says Torbit.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe launched its Sensitive Species Program in 1994. Of the ten plants and animals it currently works with, a few, such as the Mexican wolf, have been protected without generating the kind of controversy they have elsewhere. Another example is the threatened Mexican spotted owl, whose cousins in the Pacific Northwest have been so widely vilified by the logging industry. Under a cooperative agreement with FWS, a team of young tribal members led by technician Merle Baha inventories and monitors the reservation’s spotted owl population each year during the February to July breeding season. Though loggers are kept out of the bird’s habitat during this period, regulated timber harvesting is permitted the rest of the year. “We protect species without putting people out of work,” maintains tribal Sensitive Species Coordinator Cynthia Dale.

So far, the tribe’s most spectacular success story is a project to restore the threatened Apache trout, an endemic fish that historically inhabited some 600 miles of streams in Arizona’s White Mountains. When overfishing had significantly reduced the trout’s numbers by 1910, government fisheries managers began to introduce hatchery-raised fish—rainbow, cutthroat, brook and brown trout. Their strategy did produce more fish to catch, but it also decimated the already depleted native trout. Closely related rainbow and cutthroat trout easily breed with Apache trout—producing hybrids that dilute the species’ gene pool—while brook and brown trout outcompete natives for food and habitat. By 1940, the Apache trout was found in fewer than 30 miles of streams.

Fortunately, the tribe intervened. “Long before the Endangered Species Act was even thought of, the White Mountain Apache realized that the trout was a special fish and that it was in trouble,” says FWS recovery coordinator Leon. After closing Apache trout streams to fishing, the tribe worked with the federal government to build fish hatcheries (which produced millions of eggs for restocking), restore habitat along degraded streams and construct barriers to stop nonnative trout from swimming upriver and invading the natives’ breeding areas. “The tribe has been the primary player in bringing the Apache trout back,” says Leon, adding that removal of the fish from the Endangered Species List is “just around the corner.”

To some, it may seem paradoxical that a Native American community facing serious social and economic problems (including 60 percent unemployment) would invest so much in saving imperiled fish and other animals. But beyond the practical benefits of having healthy wildlife populations—jobs and revenue from hunting, fishing and ecotourism, for example—the White Mountain Apache believe strongly that the land and its plant and animal inhabitants are a key component of their cultural heritage. Beazley explains that because Mexican wolves, for example, shared reservation lands with her ancestors, “they still belong here today.” Her sentiment applies even to unpopular creatures—owls, for instance, which tribe members traditionally view as harbingers of death or disaster. Admitting, “I don’t like them,” Beazley affirms that owls, too, have a place on the reservation, “not just today but for my grandchildren and my grandchildren’s grandchildren.”

That’s not to say the tribe’s efforts have been problem free. One formidable obstacle—faced by Indian tribes nationwide—is lack of adequate funding. Unlike state wildlife agencies, tribal entities receive no regular financial support under environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act. With help from national conservation organizations, including NWF, the White Mountain Apache and other tribes have been lobbying Congress for new sources of revenue to bridge the gap.

Another potential challenge comes from the fact that tribal members belonging to nine livestock associations make their living as ranchers, and like ranchers elsewhere, they worry that wolves will kill their cattle. So far, AF587 and AM674 have avoided conflicts with ranchers. But there is no guarantee that will always be the case.

Indeed, when Beazley reached the bottom of the hill after her rare wolf sighting last spring, she discovered that the predators had been feasting not on elk, but on a dead cow. A quick exam was enough to convince the biologist that the wolves had not killed the animal; it most likely had been placed there by bear-hunt operators, who cover carcasses with branches to check for telltale brush-removal patterns made by bears. Still, the finding rattled Beazley. “We don’t want the wolves to develop a taste for cattle,” she says.

A few months after this incident, the wolves’ luck was still holding out. A devastating wildfire had recently burned nearly 300,000 acres on the reservation. Though the fire destroyed hundreds of homes, tens of thousands of acres of prime timberlands and several spotted owl nests, the wolves managed to survive.

The animals’ behavior during this chaotic time also suggested the female had given birth to pups. Confirmed by footprints and scat two months later, the wolves are now making history for the second time: When captive-born AF587 bonded with wild-born AM674, it was the first time a reintroduced pair had formed naturally. Their offspring are the first second generation of wolves born in the wild since the project began more than a decade ago.

Senior Editor Laura Tangley visited the White Mountain Apache Tribe last spring.

Update on the Bonito Pack

Laura Tangley

Just as this issue began arriving in members’ mailboxes, NWF received some sad news about the pair of Mexican gray wolves on Arizona’s Fort Apache Indian Reservation. According to Krista Beazley, the tribe’s Mexican wolf biologist, the male—known as AM674—was recently discovered dead on the reservation. Both tribal and federal authorities are investigating this sudden and suspicious death, and the animal’s body has been sent to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, for necropsy.

Born in the wild to pair of captive-born wolves, AM674 and his captive-born mate, AF587, were believed to be the first pair of reintroduced Mexican wolves to bond naturally in the wild. The animals had been together for nearly two years and last spring produced a litter of pups, the first second generation of pups born in the wild since the reintroduction effort began in 1998.

The good news, says Beazley, is that AF587 and her pups (either two or three; the pups have not yet been captured for radiocollaring) seem to be thriving. And there’s good news from the recovery program as a whole as well: As of mid-November, 27 reintroduced, radiocollared Mexican wolves belonging to eight packs were roaming free in their former Southwestern habitat. Better still, scientists have confirmed (through observation and howling surveys) that all eight packs produced pups this year, although it is still too soon to say how many have survived.

For more information and regular updates on the official recovery program, see http://mexicanwolf.fws.gov.

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