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Wolf-Proof Shelters Go Up for School Kids

By Rene Romo
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Southern Bureau
    LAS CRUCES— Catron County parents say they're just concerned about the safety of their children.
    Animal activists say it's an overreaction.
    Reserve Independent Schools is building wolf-proof shelters for school bus stops in southwest New Mexico, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reintroduced the Mexican gray wolf.
    The decision to create coop-like bus stops in this mostly rural school district stems from "numerous reports of wolf sightings and wolf activity in close proximity to our children," Superintendent Loren Cushman said in an Oct. 30 memo on the project.
    Enclosed wooden shelters will have wire-mesh covered windows on the front and sides. The goal is to install the first of about 20 shelters by late December, Cushman said.
    "Whether a person is pro or con wolf, we think it's a deterrent to build these shelters," Cushman told the Journal. "We need to do everything we can to protect our children."
    Catron County residents, ranchers and outfitters— as well as many of the county's elected officials— have been outspoken critics of the Mexican gray wolf recovery program.
    In 1998, the program started reintroducing the federally declared endangered species to the wilds of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, where they had been hunted and trapped to near extinction.
    Dave Parsons, a former Fish and Wildlife Service coordinator of the wolf recovery program, says the district is overreacting.
    Wolves, he said, "elicit a reaction that is disproportionate to the evidence that they pose a real threat."
    The federally led effort to restore the wolves to the wild has struggled. At the beginning of the year, 59 wolves were in the recovery area, which includes national forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.
Kids followed
    Cushman's memo cited two children from the Reserve area who on the last day of school in May reported they were followed by a wolf during their half-mile walk home from a school bus stop.
    "The situation could have become tragic very quickly," he wrote. Cushman has a 6-year-old daughter and said he worries about her when she is outside their Reserve-area home.
    The May report, along with other wolf sightings and attacks on livestock and pets, led the district to "take further steps in protecting our children," Cushman said.
    Brenda McCarty, mother of the 13-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl who reported being followed by a wolf, said her children no longer walk to or from the bus stop and are afraid to go anywhere outside the house by themselves.
    McCarty said she has seen wolves in the area three miles north of Reserve, and her family regularly hears a wolf howling near their home.
    She said her children are not as spooked as they were immediately after the May wolf sighting, but "They are very cautious. They don't go anywhere by themselves. ... Once it's dusk, nobody goes outside anymore."
Threat questioned
    Catron County ranchers have protested the wolf reintroduction program since its outset, mostly because of recurring livestock kills.
    But increasingly, protests from residents— often channeled through elected officials and livestock groups— have centered on fears for the safety of children.
    When the Catron County Commission last month announced plans to try to trap what it considered a dangerous wolf, unafraid of humans, Chairman Ed Wehrheim said, "Wolves in Catron County are displaying the exact behavior displayed by wolves that killed and ate Kenton Carnegie."
    It was not a reference to a southwestern New Mexico incident but one in Canada: the Nov. 8, 2005, death in northern Saskatchewan of a 22-year-old engineering student from Ontario. A coroner's inquest found Carnegie's death to be the first recorded case in North America in the last 100 years of a human being killed by wolves, though some biologists disputed the finding.
    There have been documented cases of wolf attacks on humans in North America over the last century. And there have been documented wolf kills of humans in other parts of the world, though unprovoked attacks by nonrabid wolves on people are considered rare.
    "For sure, wolves ought to be respected for their ability to kill anything they want to, but the facts of the matter are they have not demonstrated any proclivity to attack humans," said Parsons, the former wolf program coordinator. He is now a conservation biologist with the Albuquerque-based Rewilding Institute.
    "Certainly, there are a lot of other things out there that are a much greater threat," he said.
    Parsons cited a recent study by Sarah Lathrop, a veterinarian and epidemiologist with the state Office of the Medical Investigator, who found there were 63 animal-caused deaths of humans in New Mexico during the 12-year stretch from 1993 through 2004.
    Dog maulings caused three deaths. Sheep, rams specifically, killed two elderly women. Cattle were responsible for nine deaths.
    But the majority— 43 deaths, Lathrop said in an interview— were caused by human interaction with horses, either after a fall from a horse or after having been bucked, kicked, crushed or dragged by a horse. Two people died from blunt-force injury to the chest after being head-butted by a horse.
Publicity ploy?
    Cushman ordered the wolf-proof bus stop shelters himself after informing the school board.
    The shelters will be built by Reserve High School students in vocational classes, the superintendent said.
    The district is accepting donations to help pay for the shelters, which require about $400 in materials each, and Cushman said volunteers are welcome to help build them.
    The Curry County Farm and Livestock Bureau board, over on the east side of the state, voted in September to donate money to the effort.
    "This is the world turned upside down when we have to put our children in cages to protect them from wolves nobody wants, sicced on the citizens by their own government," Curry County Farm Bureau President Dee Brown was quoted as saying in the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau newsletter. "This has got to stop."
    Michael Robinson, a Silver City area representative of the Center for Biological Diversity, a leading proponent of the wolf reintroduction program, said he considered the bus stop shelters a stunt "designed to get the sympathy of the public when the real concern is safety of their livestock."
    Robinson said rural Catron County is full of potential threats, including black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and javelinas. Unaccompanied children are at risk regardless of the presence of wolves, Robinson said.
    Cushman, whose family has seen wolves near their home about 10 miles north of Reserve, denied the shelters are a public relations ploy. He said one of his daughters saw a wolf kill their barn cat about a year ago.
    "I actually woke up one night about a year ago thinking about it," Cushman said. "No, it's not a publicity stunt."