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Close Wolf Encounters; Brushes Between Kids and Lobos Leave Parents Fearful

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    A couple of encounters between children and reintroduced Mexican gray wolves this fall have some residents of southwestern New Mexico's Gila country worried.
    In one case, three wolves approached 14-year-old J.C. Nelson while he was on a hunting trip with his father. In another, a wolf attacked and injured a family dog while a young girl was nearby.
    Joe Nelson, J.C.'s father, said: "He was just out there in the woods and some wolves surrounded him. They didn't attack but were waiting for the chance."
    John Morgart, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the interagency team reintroducing the lobos in the Southwest, said an investigation found the wolves were not out to attack.
    "The wolves showed no signs of aggression and just appeared curious," he said. "They looked him over and moved on, and that was it."
    The Nelsons were hunting south of Reserve on Oct. 22 when J.C. strayed about half a mile from his father. He came across a group of three wolves moving toward him and backed up against a tree.
    One stayed in front of him while the other two circled around. They came within 20 or 30 feet of the boy and left after five to 10 minutes, according to Morgart and Nelson.
    The boy had a rifle but was worried he'd get in trouble if he shot an endangered animal, Nelson said.
    "I'm just glad he had enough sense not to run and not to turn his back on them," Nelson said. "They're natural-born killers."
    Morgart added that "the boy sounded like he kept his cool pretty well."
    A field team leader from the New Mexico Game and Fish Department looked into the incident, Morgart said, and the team even tried to re-create the situation with the Luna Pack, the wolves suspected to have been involved.
    The animals ran when investigators got within 50 yards of them, Morgart said.
    "We take any reports of these kinds of things seriously," he said.
    But Nelson said the agencies didn't do anything useful.
    "It's a joke," he said. "They're not helping."
    In an Oct. 9 incident, an 8- or 9-year-old girl was gathering horses near her house with a family dog following behind when she heard squealing and turned to see a wolf pinning the dog down, Morgart said.
    The girl got her parents, who yelled and threw rocks to scare the wolf away, Morgart said.
    The dog was injured but survived and the girl was not hurt, he said.
    "Wolves are extremely territorial," Morgart said. "They see dogs as competitors."
    Carlie Gatlin, whose husband manages a ranch in the Gila, said a family dog was killed by a wolf near their house about two months ago.
    "I don't let the kids go outside unless they have two-way radios," she said. "I've heard of a lot more encounters going on."
    The wolf reintroduction field team does not have statistics on encounters available now, but will compile them as part of its 2006 annual report.