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 would sooner die 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 a year and a half 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.
“No positive advancement in the Mexican wolf recovery project was ever taken by the initiative of the agencies. It was always forced by litigation.”
In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s livestock loss program based on Wildlife Services’ depredation reports, the USDA distributes compensation funds for wolf depredations through the Farm Service Agency’s Livestock Indemnity Program. There are also various state allocations, nonprofit coffers, and a predation offset built into the Public Rangelands Improvement Act. Federal grazing fees cost permittees only $1.35 a month per cow/calf pair, despite their compensations being valued in the thousands and the opportunity costs of public grazing licenses being estimated in excess of $1 billion per decade, notwithstanding externalized costs to environmental and public health.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity describes the government’s program of leasing public lands for grazing as “a disaster,” pointing out that “it’s the No. 1 cause of species imperilment on public lands.” His book “Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West” chronicles how the agricultural industry influenced the formation of a division within the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey that transformed into the agency known today as Wildlife Services — a wildlife massacre machine posting annual kill counts in the millions and a leading reason for the near-extinction of the Mexican wolf.
Speaking with The Intercept, he also detailed how compensation programs can incentivize false reports. While cows, which are left unattended on public lands for months at a time, can die of myriad causes — such as weather, illness, malnutrition, vehicles, poisonous plants, birth complications, bears, cougars, and feral dogs — only a depredation investigation resulting in a confirmed or probable kill by a Mexican gray wolf results in a financial reward from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“For various reasons, there’s an incentive to maximize stocking,” Robinson explains of the public land allotment program. “There are all sorts of things … that make cows in an overstocked situation more likely to die.” So even though a wolf may have been the ultimate cause of death in some cases, there are often underlying factors that would have made the cow easy prey. The deterioration of forage also drives away wolves’ other prey, leaving little to eat but cattle. Furthermore, ranchers are not required to remove or render carcasses unpalatable before investigations, allowing wolves that scavenge from them to be accused of making the kill. This negligence can encourage wolves to develop a taste for cattle.
Since the Mexican wolves’ reintroduction in 1998, Wildlife Services has issued 206 removal orders for members of the endangered species. That’s more than the highest census ever taken — 196 wolves in 2021 — since their extinction from the wild in the 1980s. This has contributed to a severe dearth of genetic diversity, threatening the survival of the subspecies. In an attempt to counteract this, some captured wolves have been bred in captivity, their offspring introduced into wild dens. But of the 72 pups released since 2016, only 14 are alive in the wild today. While the cross-fostering process is fallible and Wildlife Services’ removal orders are not a minor factor, the primary killers of these young wolves are poachers.
Around half of the Mexican wolf population is radio-collared, and among these wolves, poaching is the leading cause of death — surpassed only by unsolved disappearances, which spike when protections are lifted. Even still, the collared wolves are likely to be the safe ones, as their locations are broadcast and the brightly colored ornaments make it difficult for potential killers to claim that they were mistaken for a coyote. While the collars are intended in part to help the industry protect cattle, Gosnell says many ranchers lobby against them for these reasons, recounting that one told him bluntly: “We don’t want them collared, because then we can kill them.”
In the first two decades of the recovery, more than 100 cases of illegal killings were recorded, along with many more unsolved disappearances. With tax-exempt wolf bounty programs becoming a million-dollar industry in the Northern Rockies, allegations abound of black-market exchanges for the trapping and killing of lobos in the Southwest. In documented cases, the government has shown ambivalence toward enforcing the Endangered Species Act.
Bill Nelson, a Wildlife Services agent who evaded prosecution for shooting two endangered wolves in 2007 and 2013, was subsequently hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to work on the recovery program. And in 2020, McQueen, the Rainy Mesa Ranch owner, posted a photo of a wolf trapped beside a dead cow, suggesting illegal baiting. The incident was not investigated.
McQueen, who did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment, is now running in the June 7 Republican primary for a Catron County commissioner position.
“They’re still just approving those depredation investigations left and right. It’s totally wrong.”
In another case, a rancher named Craig Thiessen, convicted for mutilating trapped wolves using instruments like shovels and handsaws, filed seven livestock compensation claims after pleading guilty, including one after the formal revocation of his grazing permit. Wildlife Services confirmed them all. In addition, subsidy filings show that his corporation, Canyon del Buey, received $119,000 from the USDA Livestock Indemnity Program that year. After unsuccessfully appealing the permit decision, he is being sued by the Forest Service for trespassing. His cattle remain in the Gila National Forest at the time of publication.
Ironically, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t required to involve Wildlife Services in the compensation program at all. The agency could instead employ a third party to conduct depredation investigations — a proposition many think it should consider. “The guy they put in my place was a wolf hater,” Gosnell lamented. “They’re still just approving those depredation investigations left and right. It’s totally wrong.”
Despite enormous barriers, the Mexican wolf population has grown in recent years, albeit at a troublingly slow pace. To survive into the future, their recovery program needs a far bolder tack. Wolf advocates have long petitioned the Forest Service to allow retiring of grazing permits and proposed releasing intact families in addition to cross-fostering pups. Many champion a new plan drafted by an independent working group commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012. That group called for doubling the recovery target to 750 wolves and establishing two additional subpopulations in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The proposal was rejected due to opposition from the ranching lobby.
Nonetheless, the mission to rescue the desert wolves has since blossomed into an international endeavor, with Mexico sheltering nearly a quarter of the world’s population in the Sierra Madre mountain system. Its cooperation complements that of the White Mountain Apache tribe, which joined early on, declaring that “we want to bring the Mexican wolf back to its home.”
It’s been said that the wolf was humankind’s first companion, approaching our campfires with tail tucked and ears lowered thousands of years before the domestication of sheep and cattle. For millennia, we revered wolves as sacred spirits — smart and social, like us. But we recast them as villains and burned them like witches when we enclosed Europe and colonized the world with ranching. The modern plight of Mexican wolves illustrates how private power over public land remains a central threat to their existence.
While the betrayal of the Prieto pack evokes a classical tragedy, it is not an anomaly. For centuries, the United States government has persecuted predators, but now light is creeping in to the shadows of its operations. Though rough terrain lies ahead, hope yet survives that wolves may once again watch over the walls of the Grand Canyon and sing to the Sonoran moon.
Correction: May 24, 2022, 2:24 p.m. ET
This story previously misstated Robert Gosnell’s tenure administering Wildlife Services in New Mexico; he was state director of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for a year and a half, not five years. It also previously included a reference to wolf recovery cooperation by the San Carlos Apache tribe, which has been removed.