ON OCTOBER 28, U.S. District Court Judge Edwin Mechem handed Mexican gray wolves a howling victory. But even before his gavel cracked, a lobo in sheep's clothing was baring its teeth within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As Mechem dampened efforts by New Mexico cattlemen to halt the grays' incursion, FWS chieftains were quietly giving longtime wolf guru David Parsons the bureaucratic heave-ho.
This ironic turn of events now has agency officials doing what they do best: girding their backsides, and passing the buck. But as any seasoned watcher will tell you, in the predatorial thicket of wolf policy, very few coincidents are truly coincidental.
Here's how it worked: An FWS biologist, Parsons retired as head of the wolf reintroduction program on September 30, just under the deadline for a special federal pension plan. He then reapplied for his job the next day, with two goals in mind. First, he'd save money for the reintroduction budget, since pension payments issue from federal retirement funds. Second, when rehired in a lower category, he'd be paid less while still locking in his retirement.
Unfortunately, the normally routine procedure took a novel twist when wolf opponents realized their chance to ax the project's golden boy. The upshot: despite his obvious qualifications, and despite assurances by supervisor Bryan Arroyo that he'd soon be back on board, someone above Arroyo's head blocked Parsons' return.
"I came back from two weeks off, expecting a phone call saying I'd been rehired," the biologist says. "Instead, I got one saying I wasn't getting my job back, even though I was the only applicant."
While many observers consider this a rank political fish fry, FWS spin-meister Tom Bauer blames the stink squarely on David Parsons. He says the biologist was offered two chances to return, first under a 30-day renewable contract, and then a three-month renewable contract. "Twice, David declined our offers," Bauer says. "It was his decision."
Parsons scoffs at the offers, which would have allowed his return -- but only to train a successor. "They wanted to drain my brain, and then get rid of me," he says. "That's what Tom Bauer isn't saying."
Indeed, it takes precise tweezers to find mere kernels of truth behind this epic corn-holing. But the more you dig, the more it becomes obvious that Parsons, a legendary bridge-builder, might just have been too good at his job.
On the flipside, his absence is a real blow to the wolf program. "I think the lack of leadership on this issue certainly frustrates the recovery effort," says Craig Miller, southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
The timing certainly couldn't have been worse. Parsons had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he'd garnered a green light to plan wolf releases directly into the Gila National Forest of New Mexico. "Everyone involved in this project believes that the future success of the wolf recovery project hinges directly on the wolves' ability to establish territories in the Gila," Miller says, adding that Parsons had diligently nourished ties to other key players, including those crucial to potential releases onto White Mountain Apache land in northern Arizona, and into northern Mexico. "Those aren't the kind of relationships you cultivate over the course of a weekend meeting. Now they've all been thrown out the window."
While dismissing inner-agency FWS conspiracy theories ("I don't think their regional leadership is that smart"), Miller does raise the specter of political appeasement behind Parsons' sacking. "Seriously, I think it's more a function of a severe lack of leadership and crisis management approach to these controversial issues than anything else," he says.
For all the smoke-and-mirrors surrounding Parsons' booting, the crisis remains very real for both sides, particularly in light of Judge Mechem's ruling against the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association.
The ranchers had tossed out several petards to squelch wolf reintroduction. Among them: that wolves already existed in the planned recovery area, and that the animals to be released weren't true wolves, but only wolf hybrids. Finally, they argued that the wolves could harm habitat required by the Mexican spotted owls from which ranchers "derive substantial aesthetic enjoyment."
Judge Mechem was apparently not amused. He subsequently dismissed the association's claims and terminated the case.
The blow has ranchers and their Congressional lapdogs seething. In such an atmosphere, it's a short reach to see Parsons as the sacrificial olive branch held out by FWS muckety-mucks.
Enter Rep. Joe Skeen. The powerful Republican sits on the House Appropriations Committee, and its agriculture subcommittee. A sheep grower from New Mexico's second district, Skeen doesn't hide his rabid hatred of the wolf program, nor his desire to cut its cash-flow.
Most recently, he called for a full-scale environmental review of planned releases into the Gila Wilderness. In a bitter December letter to Fish and Wildlife officials, Skeen cut to the chase. "Quite frankly," he wrote, "as one who decides funding for many of these programs, I can't help but view the quality of the current (wolf reintroduction) effort as little more than a high school biology class project."
With such friends in Washington, the cattlemen can obviously withstand a few legal blows. And with budgets hanging in the balance, it's not hard to imagine Fish and Wildlife dishing up David Parsons' head on a fiscal platter.
Meanwhile, Skeen's office denies any role in Parsons' departure. "For the record we did not have anything to do with that resignation," says aide Selma Sierra.
So who ordered the biologist's sacking? While Parsons and Miller are reluctant to name FWS Regional Director Nancy Kaufman or her deputy, Geoff Haskett, as culprits, Parsons' work has often put Kaufman on the hot seat.
Either way, and despite Tom Bauer's obfuscations, it's obvious that some New Mexico bosses wanted Parsons out, even as his work has opened the door to a real future for the embattled Mexican gray wolf.