ALBUQUERQUE — In the small, rural community of Reserve, children waiting for the school bus gather inside wooden and mesh cages provided as protection from wolves. Parents consider the "kid cages" a reasonable precaution.
Defenders of the wolves note there have been no documented wolf attacks in New Mexico or Arizona. Fears of wolves attacking humans, they say, are overblown, and the cages nothing more than a stunt.
In 1995, the reintroduction of Canadian gray wolves into the northern Rockies ignited a furor.
Now that acrimony has cascaded into the Southwest, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to extend Endangered Species Act protections for an estimated 75 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona.
Such protections would make it illegal to kill wolves in most instances. The new federal plan would also significantly expand the area where the wolves could roam unmolested.
To many conservatives in the West, such protections are examples of government overreach — idealistic efforts by officials who don't know what it's like to live with wolves.
"People have to stand up and defend our rights," said Wink Crigler, a fifth-generation rancher from Arizona who says guests at her tourist cabins fear they might be attacked by wolves.
Anti-wolf campaigns here — paid for by conservative political organizations antagonistic toward the federal government — often portray the animal as a savage devil preying on children.
The antipathy has encouraged scores of illegal killings of Mexican wolves, whose population dwindled to seven before federal efforts to reintroduce them began in 1998. A young male wolf was fatally shot with an arrow a few weeks ago in the same rural Catron County that uses the kid cages.
Into this atmosphere have come federal officials who by the end of the year are expected to finalize their plan for managing Mexican wolves, a smaller and tawnier subspecies of the Canadian grays.
"With the political debate we see raging, we can't just listen to the loudest voice in the room," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "There are many loud voices in the room. No animal engenders more polarizing emotion among Americans than does the wolf."]]
It is a public policy debate driven not just by biology and science, but by emotional appeals and unalloyed partisanship.
When a previously scheduled Oct. 4 public comment hearing about wolf management was postponed by the government shutdown, advocates came out anyway, staking out nearby meeting rooms at an Albuquerque hotel.
The Save the Lobo rally, paid for by Defenders of Wildlife, featured a man in a wolf costume, children scrawling placards with crayons and people offering videotaped testimony to be forwarded to Washington.
Down the hall, an anti-wolf event was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, an organization funded by the conservative Koch brothers. The group offered literature by Ayn Rand and screened the documentary "Wolves in Government Clothing," which equated rampaging wolves with an out-of-control federal government. Said one Arizona rancher at the event: "Is this politically driven? Absolutely."
An armed guard patrolled — made necessary, Americans for Prosperity said, by death threats from environmental groups.
The issue of public safety loomed large, with much discussion of the kid cages, boxy structures that resemble chicken coops. Photos and video of the cages have been circulated by Americans for Prosperity, although it was unclear how many exist or who requested or paid for them. Local media reports suggest at least some of them were built by students in a high school shop class.
Calls to the superintendent of schools in Reserve were not returned.
To Carolyn Nelson, a teacher in Catron County, the cages don't go far enough to protect children. She said that seven years ago her son, then 14, was out walking and came across three wolves. Frightened, he backed against a tree. One wolf stared him down while the other two circled.
Only when the boy cocked the gun he was carrying did the wolves run off.