On Wednesday afternoon I drove in rain from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to attend a public hearing about wolves. Overnight the sunny, dry weather had changed to overcast and wet. Rain was still falling several hours later as dusk settled over downtown Albuquerque and I wondered if it was an omen, but of what, I couldn’t say.
I found one of the last open slots on the periphery of the Embassy Suites parking lot and debated a moment before I decided to carry my leopard print umbrella, not knowing if its pointed tip might be perceived as a weapon and confiscated. On my way in to the hotel, I noticed a few cars from Colorado and California scattered among the New Mexico license plates.
Inside, the doors to the ballroom had opened and people were filling out forms requesting the opportunity to speak. I didn’t sign up. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), who was conducting the hearing, stressed that written comments would bear equal weight to spoken and I had submitted my letter a few weeks earlier. I came armed with my recorder and a notebook so I could focus on listening and observing.
With a few minutes until the hearing was to start I stopped by the conference rooms where the meetings and rallies representing those for and against wolves had recently concluded. Out in the hallway both groups had exhibits: a life-sized photo of four children in a wolf shelter or “kid cage”, constructed of plywood and wire, designed to provide a safe haven for rural children waiting for the school bus sat just a few feet away from a small nylon camping tent with snapshots of wolves mounted above it.
Back in the ballroom the seats were filling up. Security consisted of an armed guard and a yellow sign stating that weapons, food, and drinks were not allowed inside. A woman wearing a Wolves Are Essential sign was turned away, but I got in with my umbrella.
I took a seat midway back in the room. In the row in front of me sat a family, the two parents with their son and daughter, both grade-school-age. The boy and his dad held their cowboy hats in their laps. Milling about in the aisle were wolf supporters wearing Let the Lobo Live and National Rally to Protect America’s Wolves.
At six o’clock the meeting was called to order and three FWS employees presented and explained their proposed rule changes.
The first proposal is to de-list the gray wolf, meaning that it would be removed from the threatened and endangered species list and would no longer receive federal protection. It would include all wolves in the lower forty-eight states except the Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies.
The other proposals involve the complex management of the Mexican wolf recovery program and would allow the direct release of wolves throughout the recovery area, limit the wolves’ movement to the recovery area, and re-designate the existing wild population as experimental, non-essential. This complicated set of changes would be the focus of most of the evening’s testimony.
Each speaker was limited to two minutes. I sat with pen poised above my notebook as each one stood at the microphone. Were they for or against the wolf? Sometimes it was hard to tell. The proposed rule changes were generally not favored by either side. What soon became evident was the huge chasm between those who want all wolves de-listed (including the Mexican wolf) and those who think all wolves (including the gray wolf) should continue to be protected.
One speaker stood out for me: Colin Henderson, a rancher in favor of expanding the Mexican wolf’s range. He raises Navajo churro sheep just north of the New Mexico border in Colorado. After relating that he had two ewes injured and one sheep killed the prior week, either by coyotes or dogs, he said that he felt that the expansion was necessary to create a healthy, genetically sound wolf population. If the wolves were allowed to roam without intervention, his sheep could be at risk.
By the time the hearing concluded three hours after it began, my unofficial tally showed that seventy-two had testified with forty-nine speaking in favor of the wolves and twenty-three against, which agreed with the Albuquerque Journal’s “two to one in favor of expansion of the wolf recovery program.”
I walked outside after the hearing surprised to find that the rain had stopped.
Note: With one more public hearing in Arizona and the comment period extended until December 17th, it will be several weeks before the FWS issues their final decision.