PHOENIX -- Greg Collins still wore blood-stained khaki pants as his friends dragged him from the Bear Wallow Cafe -- the end of another successful day of elk hunting in the heart of eastern Arizona wolf country.
"There's nothing wrong with wolves," said Collins, a hunter, miner and coppersmith who lives in the hills near Silver City, N.M. "(But) I will shoot a wolf on sight, and I'd like the FBI tagging along. You are not going to tell me what to do."If Collins' view seems contradictory, it reflects a deep-rooted conflict many folks along the Arizona-New Mexico line have about the federal government's program this year to repopulate the Apache and Gila national forests with endangered Mexican gray wolves.
Many here say they are not so much against the wolves as they are against what the wolf represents: the steady erosion of a Western lifestyle dependent on mining, ranching and logging.
Five of the wolves have been shot to death, a federal crime that carries a potential fine of $100,000 and a year in prison. A state-federal task force is investigating, but so far has not filed charges against anyone. A $50,000 reward has been offered for the capture of the wolf killers.
The mystery surrounding the killings has led to claims of death threats received by ranchers and environmentalists. But no one has been harmed, and no sheep or cattle have been eaten by wolves.
Between conflicting theories of intentional sabotage and random accidents, Collins shares another theory that the wolves were intentionally shot by different people in opportunistic moments of frustration.
"What's the big deal? You see a wolf, you shoot a wolf," said Max Schowengerdt, a former Las Vegas, Nev., construction contractor who recently retired to the mountains of western New Mexico.
To these hunters, the potential suspects in the wolf shootings could include anyone in the economically depressed region, which has an unemployment rate three times the states' averages.
"Every truck that goes down this street has a gun in it. Does that mean they're militia? No. It's because their daddy and their daddy's daddy had guns," Schowengerdt said.
There also are those who believe that the wolves were mistaken for coyotes, even though wolves are nearly three times the size of coyotes.
Among those are Jess Carey, a former Catron County sheriff and gun shop owner from Reserve, N.M., who was subpoenaed last month by a federal grand jury investigating the wolf killings.
Carey turned over reams of records, guns and ammunition to special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, anything that related to the kinds of shell casings found near the dead wolves.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service says it have no suspects, Carey said he was handed a piece of paper -- with his name on it -- that listed the suspects in the wolf killings.
"I knew each and every one of these people who bought these guns, and not one of them was capable of shooting any wolves," Carey said.
Asked how he could be so sure, he said, "Because everyone of those people are law-abiding citizens. And they're not going to go out here and shoot a wolf."
For many, the wolves represent the latest intrusion by environmentalists and federal land managers.
Timber production has fallen throughout Arizona and New Mexico as federal land managers move to comply with federal court orders in lawsuits brought by environmentalists aimed at saving other threatened and endangered wildlife such as the Mexican spotted owl.
Falling copper prices also are forcing layoffs of hundreds of miners in New Mexico.
And ranchers are under pressure to cut back their herds in areas where federal land managers move to restore rivers and streams damaged by decades of overgrazing livestock.
Bill Marks, for example, has cut his herds in half in recent years, and he faces more cuts next year. At the same time, federal officials plan to release at least one wolf pack near Bear Valley, within a quarter-mile of spring calving areas.
"All they (wolves) have to do is find one stillborn calf, and they'll be right on them," said Marks, who worked throughout the summer to scare wolves away from his cattle.
"This is the kind of cooperation I'm getting," Marks said of the releases planned near his ranch in the Blue Range Primitive Area.
Before their release into the wild, wolves have been put in acclimation pens that ring the Primitive Area. After several weeks, they are released into the forest. Four more wolves currently in such pens will be released today. And at least two more wolf packs will be released from acclimation pens in coming months.
But the use of acclimation pens has led to accusations by ranchers that the wolves -- which were raised in zoos and other captive breeding facilities -- are too dependent on humans bringing them food. Ranchers say that the wolves starved when they weren't fed road-kill and that the wolves are attracted by the sound of automobiles.
Dave Parsons, Mexican wolf recovery leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said wolves have learned on their own to hunt wild game -- mostly elk, which compete with cattle for forage. The wolves, he said, are afraid of people but don't seem to move far enough away to keep from being shot.
As part of the ongoing reintroduction experiment, biologists plan to release one or two pairs of wolves -- possibly by helicopter -- directly into the Blue Range Primitive Area.
No pens are allowed to be built inside the Primitive Area, and wolves released there will be forced to fend for themselves right from the start.
Meanwhile, to avoid confusing them with coyotes, federal officials are releasing the wolves with brightly colored radio collars and brightly painted markings on their hips.
If these wolves are shot to death, it could only be by someone who purposely wanted wolves dead. Because most mammals are color blind, the markings will not affect the wolves' ability to hunt.