SPRINGERVILLE – When 15-year-old Brooke Becker decided to take her horse out for a ride on her parent’s property near Nutrioso, little did she expect to endure the traumatization that may last her a lifetime.
She was encircled by eight Mexican gray wolves.
“I’ve encountered wolves at least three times,” she told the crowd. “One was this morning while I was walking my lambs exercising them — and I took a picture of it, actually.
That was her testimony Monday during a special wolf predation meeting at Apache County District III Supervisor Doyel Shamley’s office. The meeting was set up to collect comments and signatures from residents and ranchers who have been threatened, financially and otherwise, by the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish.
Mexican gray wolves, an endangered species that was reintroduced into the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in the late 1990s, have continued to expand its population and range in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
There have been several recent reports of wolf packs entering into the towns of Nutrioso and Alpine looking for food sources. There is even a Facebook page devoted to residents who capture photos of the wolves and their kills that occur near residential areas.
Also on hand to hear Becker’s story was Arizona’s director of agriculture, Mark Killian.
Becker recounted her second encounter with a wolf, about a week or two ago, she said.
“I was walking my 1½-year-old colt out to the forest. I was by a wood pile and the wolf was about 200 yards away and he stood there,” Becker said. “I started yelling and he looked (at) my dog, he looked at the elk and he looked around like he was looking for more wolves. I told my dog to go chase him and he chased him, but my dog won’t go after wolves if there’s more than one. He knows. He learned his lesson the first time.”
The first encounter, she said, was the scariest.
“I was riding behind my house looking for shed horns. All of a sudden I hear this barking and then…they wouldn’t go,” she said while sobbing. “I started yelling at them and they just came closer. I was on my horse. And so when I started yelling at them, my dog chased after them. He realized they weren’t playing.
“I trotted out of there because I remember my papa telling me a story that (wolves) chase until (their prey) can’t run anymore. I decided to slowly trot out of there. My dog came back about three times. One time it took forever. I heard him yelping and I thought he was dead. He came back and I heard a howling and they were circling me. I was almost to my house when they stopped chasing me but I can still hear them howling. I came back yelling, running.”
The story had a visible effect on Killian.
“No child should be that traumatized like that,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Daric Knight, Brooke’s godfather, said he has years of experience with wolf depredations on his ranching operations throughout Apache County and eastern Arizona.
“This is not acceptable, period,” he said. “Look at Brooke right now. Her life’s changed. She was chased by eight wolves. My worry has gone above and beyond the worry for elk and livestock. Mine is for these kids.”
“It’s one thing when the wolves are way out in the middle of nowhere, but when (wolves) come into town and start harassing people, that’s …” he said before trailing off.
Brooke’s mother, who didn’t give her name, said the incident was reported to Arizona Game and Fish officials and “nothing was done about it.”
“At first, they told us there was a wolf kill in that area, then the next day AZGFD told us there was a den there,’ she said. “They slipped up and told us there was a den when they originally said there was not.”
Prisoners to the wolves
Several people present expressed their dismay at not being able to ride their horses or enjoy the outdoors for fear wolves will attack them – in a municipal subdivision.
Early Monday morning — at about 3 a.m. — Karen Zalesky, of Nutrioso, said she heard wolves howling in her back yard. They were howling, she said, because they had just made a kill.
“I don’t walk in the forest. I don’t ride my horse in the forest. I don’t walk my dogs. It’s sad,” she said. “I can’t even get out and enjoy the forest that has lots to give all of us.”
The previous night, Zalesky said she witnessed several elk around her home in Nutrioso. Usually with elk — come the wolves looking for prey.
“Guess what was all around me this morning?” she asked. “Where do you think the wolves are going to come? We can’t even enjoy the national forest that our tax dollars pay for. I saw Brooke (Becker) riding on the road because she can’t even ride it in the forest. I can’t take my horses two feet into the forest because I’m afraid and don’t know what will happen.”
One person who did not give his name, told the audience that wolves have been seen near Alpine Elementary School, which is surrounded by a fence. Most school districts have fencing, especially around playground areas, as a security measure. In Alpine, the fence also serves as a barrier between children at play and wolves.
Killian, whose family owned a ranch in Quemado, N.M., but later sold it because wolves were introduced nearby, sympathized with those at the meeting. He said people in urban areas – and especially those who vacation in the area – must be made fully aware of the wolf danger.
“The real challenge is people in urban areas do not know what’s happening up here. When we share that information on social media, they’re shocked as to the things that happen,” he said. “The first time I shared on my Facebook page about the things going on, my urban friends didn’t believe me. I posted pictures (of wolf depredation incidents). I posed this question: If you had to put your kids in a cage before they go to school, how long do you think that would last in urban areas? We have a lot of work to do. I’m tired of talking about it. We need to get some action.”
Knight agreed and said more awareness must be spread to folks in the valley.
“The thing that makes me so upset is I turn on the damn news – excuse me – the 5 o’clock news in Phoenix … they’re raising Cain because coyotes are coming in and taking their pets,” he said, visibly upset. “I’m listening to people talk and asking, ‘What if they start getting aggressive and attacking our kids?’ You know, the same things are happening here in our subdivisions.”
Wolf population counts
The endangered Mexican gray wolf population leveled off in 2017 after showing stronger growth the year before, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The population grew by at least one, to 114 wolves in the wild throughout Arizona and New Mexico. There are 22 wolf packs in the two states.
The wildlife agencies conduct aerial and ground surveys each year to document the number of wolves in the wild. But the official count of 114 includes mostly radio-collared animals; it is not possible to count all of the uncollared wolves, wildlife officials say.
Zalesky said AZGFD officials paid a visit to her home and “stayed all night” in an attempt to “haze wolves away.”
“They come down our road and said, ‘I don’t get a ping. They’re not here,’” she said. “Really?”
Although the 2017 gains were marginal, it remains the highest count since reintroducing captive wolves to the U.S. began in 1998. But while the gains were higher in recent years, the total population has only grown by four since 2014.
At least 63 wolves were counted in Arizona in 2017, the same as the year before, state and federal wildlife agencies reported. The Mexican government recorded about 31 wolves roaming in their northern states last year.
“While the 2017 numbers are not what we were hoping for, this is not the sole metric to measure progress in Mexican wolf recovery,” Jim deVos of the Arizona Game and Fish Department said in a statement last November. “While 1998 seems like a long time ago, it is important to remember that there were no Mexican wolves in the wild just a few years ago, and yet today there are healthy, stable and increasing populations, marking progress toward recovery.”
They’re also making their way into residential areas, where people say they fear going outdoors. The Becker family of Nutrioso, for instance, live about one-fourth of a mile from a known Mexican gray wolf den, according to Knight.
“They live right at the bottom of one of our cow permits,” Knight said. “We have wolves all over the place there. Their five kids, 90 percent of the time, can’t go outside and play because those wolves are living right there.”
Knight rhetorically asked those in attendance if they would allow their young children to walk from the house to the barn, even with supervision, knowing that a pack of wolves is lurking nearby.
“We have milk cows there with babies, goats and sheep,” he said. “(The Becker family children are) raising them for 4-H and these wolves are in the subdivision? They’re right there. They’re living there. They’re denning there. Why are they allowed to den a quarter mile behind their house? There’s no excuse for that.
“This is not cool.”
Some say let the Mexican wolf be extinct
Jon Swapp, a rancher who has operations in Hildalgo County, N.M., and Graham County, Ariz., said environmentalists, AZGFD and USFWS are trying to bring back a species that was naturally targeted for extinction.
“The wolf they’re trying to reintroduce is a half-breed, inbred mongrel,” he said. “The Mogollon wolf (an extinct subspecies of gray wolf) is gone. It’s never coming back. What we need to do is tell these people that they cannot continue to supplement the population with other wolves. These wolves would not last two years if it weren’t for the supplemental population. The death rate is too high.
“We need to convince these people that they’re going against all the fundamental laws of nature. They are doing absolutely everything wrong and they need to know it. We need to fight them.”
Killian said he wanted to know all wolf encounter and depredation stories so that he can inform elected officials at the state and national levels.
“I want to know how you’ve been impacted by the wolves, what they’ve done,” he said. “I am very aware of problems that wolves create and I’ve been carrying that message to a number of people. I think we’ve gotten to the point now where a lot of people would be very sympathetic to what’s happening.”
Shamley also said the public should report interactions and depredations to the Apache County Sheriff’s Office, saying deputies are trained in documentation and gathering of evidence for “these unique situations. The number to call is 928-337-4321.