by Spencer Roberts / The Intercept
SOME SAY CLEOPATRA died by drinking a poison wolfsbane tincture to avoid being taken prisoner. Thousands of years later, a similar fate met another captive queen: the matriarch of the Prieto wolf pack. When she was snared in April 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division had already gunned down her mate and killed or captured eight of her heirs. Officials decided to remove alpha female No. 1251 from the Gila National Forest in New Mexico due to her alleged taste for cattle. The next day, she was found dead. Extreme levels of stress hormones had turned her blood toxic, a phenomenon biologists call capture myopathy. She sooner died than live in a cage.
The death of this endangered Mexican gray wolf completed the eradication of her pack, a vital bloodline in a critically low gene pool. In 2021, there were fewer than 200 Mexican gray wolves in the wild — the highest count ever taken in a recovery program whose gradual upward climb has been forcibly slowed.
Wildlife Services justified the Prieto pack’s destruction by citing livestock depredation reports, which showed that these wolves were prolific cow killers. Yet watchdogs and wolf biologists have long questioned the validity of this data. Now the former director of the agency has come forward to corroborate their suspicions.
Robert “Goose” Gosnell administered Wildlife Services in New Mexico for five years as state director of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a job at which he says he inherited an entrenched and systemic corruption problem. “I know some of those depredation [report]s that caused [wolf] removals were illegal,” he told The Intercept, explaining that inspectors had been instructed by superiors to confirm livestock loss incidents as “wolf kills” for ranchers. “My guys in the field were going and rubber-stamping anything those people asked them to.” He described how many also worked second jobs as hunting guides for the same ranchers whose claims they evaluated — a violation of federal ethics codes.
When Gosnell took over APHIS in New Mexico, colleagues from the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department warned him of shady dealings. He was skeptical at first but began to see the patterns. Internal communications show that before Gosnell’s tenure, Fish and Wildlife Service employees had been kept in the dark. When they were allowed to review the livestock depredation reports, they clearly contended that Wildlife Services investigators were erroneously confirming wolf kills.
Gosnell attempted to reform New Mexico Wildlife Services during his time as director, but his efforts were met with retaliation. Seeking the insight of experienced livestock depredation investigators from wolf-dense states to the north, he sent the New Mexico reports for review. “Everybody up there said, ‘Those aren’t wolf kills,’” he recounted, adding that the inquiry landed him in hot water. “I had big bosses coming down on me.” A regional director, his direct superior, pulled him aside at an ornithology conference and told him to “back off” his probe into the depredation records, cluing him in to an arrangement between federal APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea and New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte.
Gosnell later filed a complaint with the USDA Office of Inspector General and was subsequently demerited and transferred out of New Mexico. He responded with a lawsuit against the federal government, which reached a settlement that restored his record and paid his legal fees. But no action was taken to address the corrupt livestock compensation and wolf-removal programs he blew the whistle on.Internal documents obtained by wildlife watchdogs at the Western Watersheds Project show that 88 percent of predation incidents are attributed to Mexican wolves on grazing allotments in the Gila National Forest and Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. (The national average is roughly 4 percent.) Of those, 97 percent result in “confirmed” or “probable” determinations — entailing compensation through the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wolf Livestock Loss Demonstration Project Grant Program. Western Watersheds Project investigators Greta Anderson and Cyndi Tuell have sifted through thousands of pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to elucidate the opaque system.
“The Mexican wolf recovery program is being sabotaged,” Anderson, the Western Watersheds Project’s deputy director, said of the Wildlife Services data. Her research shows that Rainy Mesa, a ranch in the vicinity of the former Prieto pack, had 48 of 49 claims confirmed as wolf attacks between 2018 and 2021 — worth more than $1,000 on average through the Fish and Wildlife Service program. Its owner was separately compensated through the USDA’s Livestock Indemnity Program for just under $70,000 in 2020 — valuing at as much as one-fifth of the cattle permitted to graze on the company’s public land allotment. On social media, Rainy Mesa Ranch owner Audrey McQueen, who runs a trophy-hunting business and lobbies for wolf removals, claimed 31 depredation confirmations in six months and stated that wolves had killed more than 10 percent of her herd. Wolf experts don’t buy it.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Carter Niemeyer, who conducted and reviewed hundreds of depredation investigations over 14 years as a Wildlife Services district supervisor in Montana. While he never saw numbers like those attributed to the much smaller wolves down south, he did recall the “tremendous” influence of the ranching lobby within the agency. “We were the hired gun of the livestock industry,” he said, recalling that he was constantly pressured to change his reports by superiors and eventually lost his job at Wildlife Services due to complaints from ranchers, before transferring to the Fish and Wildlife Service to coordinate wolf recovery in Idaho.
Niemeyer said it was “very unusual” for a wolf pack to attack an adult cow, yet these claims constituted more than half of confirmed wolf kills in the New Mexico Wildlife Services database. And while he and other investigators look for evidence of tearing on the hind legs to indicate wolf pursuit and hemorrhaging around wounds to prove that a cow was alive at the time of attack, state Wildlife Services reports marked as “confirmed” appear satisfied simply by a pair of puncture points roughly within the canine width of a Mexican wolf.
Other government scientists have identified flaws with this criterion. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Mammalogy, a team of researchers from APHIS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Navajo Nation Veterinary Program demonstrated that the range of canine spread for Mexican wolves is entirely overlapped by the combined ranges of coyotes, cougars, and feral dogs, stressing that “bite mark analyses should be evaluated along with additional forensic evidence due to the overlap between many of the carnivore species.” Niemeyer also found this form of evidence unconvincing, saying that “tooth spacing by itself doesn’t mean anything, in my opinion,” and describing how wolves often don’t leave tooth-puncture wounds at all.
New Mexico Wildlife Services depredation reports obtained by the Western Watersheds Project show significantly less scrutiny than their northern counterparts. In some cases, canine spread measurements did not match caliper photos, pregnant cows were double-counted, or reports appeared in duplicate with no explanation. In one, a wolf kill was confirmed using only a month-old piece of hide, which was soaked and stretched before the inspector took its measurements. In another, five dead calves in varying states of decomposition were submitted at once. All five were recorded as confirmed kills. These were among the many reports claimed by Rainy Mesa Ranch that were used as evidence in removal orders that wiped out the Prieto pack.
GOSNELL ATTEMPTED TO rein in unscrupulous confirmations through a variety of methods, including hiring investigators from outside the department. After one of Gosnell’s new hires paid a visit to Rainy Mesa Ranch, McQueen complained up the hierarchy to the Wildlife Services Western regional office. The inspector was removed from depredation investigations, pressured to sign an admission of fault, and — as Gosnell put it — “railroaded” out of the department before filing a single report. The employee would also go on to file an Office of Inspector General complaint.
The latest to join the chorus of voices calling for a USDA investigation of Wildlife Services was Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who described “serious accountability issues” and a “lack of scientific integrity” in a letter to the USDA inspector general. At the time of publication, none of the parties who filed complaints with the Office of Inspector General had received resolution.
However, Heinrich’s advocacy on behalf of wolves is rare among the state’s lawmakers. Gosnell’s approach upset not only House representatives, who introduced legislation to strip endangered status from Mexican wolves, but also local officials, who characterized his training workshops for county trappers as redirecting predator control funding toward predator protection. During the 2019 government shutdown, Catron County, which covers part of the Gila National Forest, allowed private contractor Jess Carey to conduct investigations in the stead of federal employees, who wrote in official documents that they had not seen the investigation site and were “peer-reviewing” the state trapper’s work. Over this period, the county confirmed 100 percent of depredation claims as Mexican wolf kills.
“It does not seem feasible there would be that much depredation,” wolf biologist David Parsons said of the Wildlife Services figures, citing a 400-page Environmental Impact Statement he prepared for the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996 on the impacts of Mexican wolf reintroduction. Parsons served as the recovery program’s first director and was its architect in many ways, working for nearly a decade at the Fish and Wildlife Service and navigating immense political opposition from both ranching and military interests.
He explained that due to its smaller size, the desert subspecies of gray wolf — Mexican wolves, also known as lobos — evolved to hunt smaller prey like javelinas and deer and would be expected to kill less cattle than its northern relatives, controlling for other factors. Using existing depredation data and accounting for the unique factors at play in New Mexico — such as year-round grazing permits and higher cattle density — he and his colleagues estimated that “after the wolf population grows to approximately 100, it is projected to kill between one and 34 cattle annually, mostly calves.” In 2020, the last complete year in the database, population surveys estimated 186 wolves. Wildlife Services confirmed 133 wolf kills.
“No positive advancement in the Mexican wolf recovery project was ever taken by the initiative of the agencies. It was always forced by litigation,” Parsons explained. He would know: When a 1990 lawsuit filed by the Wolf Action Group found his superiors in violation of the Endangered Species Act for canceling the recovery project, the agency was forced to carry Parsons’s plan forward. After successfully relocating the reintroduction area from the White Sands Missile Range to a more suitable habitat on lands leased for grazing in the Blue Range Wilderness area of the Gila National Forest, Parsons received a “surprise early retirement” — his administrator declined to renew his employement. The current Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator said he was not given clearance by the Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Public Affairs to comment on this story.
Despite Parsons’s efforts, several critical loopholes were built into the recovery plan, including the establishment of a boundary wolves would not be permitted to cross and the designation of the population as “nonessential” to the species’s survival — even though it’s the only wild population of Mexican wolves in the world. This designation granted government agencies exemptions from Endangered Species Act protections, including the ability to kill wolves.
[Read the rest on the Intercept website]