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How "Never Cry Wolf" Made Me a Wolf Advocate
In 1983, Disney produced a film adaptation of Farley Mowat’s book Never Cry Wolf that ordained my fate. The film is a haunting story of a government biologist sent into the wilderness to study caribou whose decline, some believed, wolves caused. In the end the movie confirms that wolves, true to Inuit lore, are not ruthless, savage killers—as perceived by some—but rather nature's instrument for keeping the caribou strong.
The movie sparked a desire in me to live in the wild and study wolves. After several summers in Alaska and Canada, I further committed myself to this course. While in graduate school in Las Cruces, NM, I discovered the magnificent Greater Gila bioregion of New Mexico and Arizona. Trying to live my fantasy, I survived many weekends in the backcountry on just dandelions, cattails and pine needle tea.
I didn't know it then but my burgeoning love of the Gila put me on a course to fulfill the dream seeded by Farley Mowat and Disney. While in graduate school dedicated wildlife scientists and conservationists were reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf to the Greater Gila, a place it once called home.
As I learned from Never Cry Wolf, the path for wolf restoration would not be easy.
People once living and ranching in the Gila exterminated the wolf in the early 20th century and their present day kin had no desire to see the species restored.
Sure enough Mexican wolves disappeared, one after the other, later to be found shot or even poisoned. Some became victims of steel-jawed traps, while others would be removed due to conflicts with ranchers and their cows.
Slowly, I realized rather than study my beloved wolves, I wanted to devote my life to preserving the great wild places of the world threatened by man’s progress—places like the Gila.
I lead WildEarth Guardians’ Greater Gila campaign, where we’ve directed a forceful legal campaign against grazing practices on national forest lands. Throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we enforced the Endangered Species Act to protect native fish and the southwest willow flycatcher, requiring the Forest Service to remove cattle from 300-plus miles of streams and rivers in the Greater Gila.
After early legal successes, we decided on a different approach to help return Mexican wolves and create cow-free public lands where wolves could live free from persecution. After much internal discussion we decided on a grazing permit retirement program.
Compensating federal grazing permittees to retire their grazing leases on public lands makes sense to me. It’s ecologically essential, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially just, and politically pragmatic. It is an equitable way to resolve long-standing conflicts between domestic livestock grazing and environmental protection, recreation and other uses of public lands.
Our strategy is elegant and simple.
And while a handful of ranchers have rejected my advances, many
others have listened dispassionately to what I’ve offered. And I’ve built some trust and new
relationships. Already I’ve engaged more
than a dozen ranchers and enrolled three who control a significant amount of
In the next ten years Guardians will help fulfill my lifelong vision as we hope to add up to 2.2 million acres of roadless lands to the national wilderness preservation system while also retiring significant acreage from livestock grazing, so that wolves can roam on the landscape without conflict.
Although I’m a biologist by training, my Gila-wolf work more often requires skill in diplomacy and negotiation. Regardless, I still regularly travel into the wild backcountry of the Gila where I always hope to hear the plaintive howls of wild lobos, like Mowat.
In Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat’s character consumes mice, marks the perimeter of his camp and calls to the wolves with a mislaid obo. The end of the story is both tragic and hopeful, just as the plight of our Mexican wolves today. My promise first to the wolves and eventually to a wild Gila was sealed since I was fifteen.
If there was ever a place where wolves can thrive in the southwestern U.S. it is the Gila bioregion. We will secure their fate here first and then work with diligence and optimism to ensure they roam again through vast wild places from Canada to Mexico once again.
For the wild,
Wild Places Program Director