BEAVERHEAD, N.M. (AP) -- Mike Miller watched from a rocky bluff as the female went down. The dart pierced her hip, its sedative seeping into her bloodstream. A half-hour later, after a pursuit along the canyon wall, he saw the gunner clip the male in the neck.
The cowboy felt a rush of elation.
He had ridden out to Railroad Canyon in the thick of the Gila National Forest to watch as the feds swept down in their helicopter and scooped up the Pipestem wolves, named for a mountain near the spot where they were first set free.
He had come to celebrate one small victory in his and his neighbors' war against "el lobo" -- sworn enemy of the cattle rancher for as long as there have been ranches in the West.
He had, unabashedly, come to gloat.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf to the wilderness that connects Arizona and New Mexico, ranchers warned: Wolves and people cannot coexist, and wolves and cattle are a lethal combination.
This pair alone, Miller believes, killed 19 calves on the outfit he manages, although federal officials confirmed only two deaths. Some calves were too far gone to say for certain whether a wolf was the culprit.
They had come within a stone's throw of his home and his kids, terrifying his wife.
"I can handle the bears and the mountain lions and the bobcats," Debbie Miller says. "When you see them, they take off. They're scared of you. These wolves, they're not scared. And that's what scares me."
So on a quiet spring morning, after months of pursuing the marauding predators, trappers with the federal wildlife agency arrived to return them to captivity.
"I was glad it was done with," Mike Miller recalls, although his relief was short-lived.
This summer, a month after the Pipestem pair were removed, nine more wolves were released in the wilderness straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border. At least 21 wolves now roam the pine-studded woods, and an unknown number have been born in the wild. Others could be freed down the road.
Sooner or later, this cowboy knows, "el lobo" will be back.
It is considered their best chance at survival and, sometimes, their last.
When habitat restoration alone won't sustain them, when there are so few creatures left that the odds of natural recovery are slim, establishing a new population of animals in the wild becomes the lifesaving solution for many of the nation's most imperiled species.
"It's emergency room treatment," says Ed Bangs, who oversees restoration of the gray wolf to the northern Rocky Mountains. "You've got a patient that's dying and you want to save their life. You do everything you can. And then you wheel in the next patient."
Wildlife reintroduction has become an integral part of the country's efforts to protect and restore endangered species. Without it, the California condor would likely have vanished from Western skies, the black-footed ferret disappeared from its prairies.
There would be no red wolves roaming refuges along the coast of North Carolina, nor gray wolves for tourists to view in Yellowstone National Park. Due to Bangs' program, that species is recovered in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana and could be removed from federal protection in those states next year.
But success stories often are overshadowed by setbacks. Whether by gun barrel or bulldozer, man rid the land of these creatures decades ago, and man remains one of the biggest roadblocks to restoration.
In California, commercial fishermen went to court after sea otters were found in a prohibited zone where the animals compete with man for profitable shellfish. In Delaware, developers challenged building restrictions stemming from a new population of Delmarva fox squirrels.
Lawsuits also come from the other side -- environmentalists who insist the government isn't doing enough to promote or sustain re-established species.
Then last year, the government shelved its own plan to reintroduce grizzlies in Montana and Idaho. Interior Secretary Gale Norton suspended the program following complaints from politicians and ranchers that the bears would put livestock and people at risk.
"It's not so much a biological issue. This whole thing is a social issue," says Carter Niemeyer, federal wolf recovery coordinator in Idaho. "We spend most of our time dealing with a concerned public, sometimes an angry public."
The animals don't always cooperate either.
Managers are considering scrapping a program to establish a second population of sea otters off the coast of Southern California after some died during relocation and others strayed from the territory. Of 140 otters moved in three years, 30 remain. The overall population of California otters is now in decline.
Programs involving captive animals face additional challenges. More than two dozen condors raised in zoos had to be removed from the wild because of adaptation problems such as roosting on the ground and interacting with people at swimming pools.
Forty-five of the 144 condors released in Arizona and California since 1992 died, some from lead poisoning after feeding on bullet-riddled carcasses and others from colliding with power lines. Managers don't expect to meet their goal of 300 wild condors for at least another decade. There are 75 now.
"It takes a lot to bring it about," condor recovery leader Bruce Palmer says of reintroduction.
At the heart of the debate over these programs are two divergent ideas of how this puzzle that is our nation fits together. Can we put the pieces back the way they once were, or have new parts created a landscape that can no longer be altered?
"While we may all have this view of what the 'wild' ought to be, we don't have it anymore," says Caren Cowan of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which sued unsuccessfully to stop the Mexican wolf program. "There are a lot of people around a lot of roads that weren't there 50 years ago.
"You can't turn back the clock."
There are still old-timers in southwestern New Mexico who remember when wolves roamed these parts as freely as coyotes and bears. They tell tales of bloodthirsty predators who could take down a calf like a rag doll.
And they remember when, in the 1900s, the government came to their aid and began systematically poisoning wolves.
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