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Sunday, December 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Turner's Plans Rile His Ranching Neighbors -- Wolves To Be Released In New Mexico

The (Santa Fe) New Mexican

HILLSBORO, N.M. - The folks in this cattle ranching country are so friendly they'll rustle up cowboy-size bowls of tasty chili for a pair of hungry strangers in town for the night at the local S-Bar-X motel and saloon.

They'll embrace the occasional over-the-edge Santa Fe artist who takes up residence among the cottonwoods and rundown adobe Victorians of this former mining town in southwestern New Mexico.

They'll even swear that Hollywood producer-director Zalman King - a recent addition to this town of "150 people, 400 dogs and 600 cats" - is the nicest guy, even though they don't much care for his soft-core erotica.

But mention multibillionaire Ted Turner, who bought the nearby 500-square-mile Ladder Ranch a few years back, and their hackles rise.

First it was the buffalo.

Turner removed the ranch's cattle and replaced them with bison, sparking fears the roaming animals would break through fencing, trample neighbors' grazing land and bring disease to the region.

Now it's wolves.

Turner's people are busy building pens on slopes of prickly pear, yucca and ocotillo at the Ladder Ranch that, come next month, will hold five breeding pairs of critically endangered Mexican wolves.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is readying wolves for release in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

Turner's "Warm Springs Project" is part of his master plan - administered by 29-year-old son Beau through the Turner Endangered Species Fund - to restore lost species to his vast land holdings in New Mexico, Montana, Florida, South Carolina and the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

"I wish he could see calves that have been mutilated by wolves," 78-year-old rancher Mary Jane Nunn says, shaking her red-haired, roller-curled head over her usual Cutty Sark and soda at the S-Bar-X.

"We fight the coyotes and now we're going to have to fight the wolves," she says. "And you know darned well they're not going to attack the buffalo, because they're just too big."

The Mexican wolf, the smallest of North America's gray wolf species, once roamed the Southwest from central Mexico to southern Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. It was hunted to near extinction in the United States by the government on behalf of the livestock industry.

By 1960, only seven survived in captivity.

Today, 178 wolves live in captivity in the United States and Mexico. Fish and Wildlife plans to begin its reintroduction program next spring with the release of 15 Mexican gray wolves - none from Turner's pens - into the Blue Range of southeastern Arizona.

Subsequent releases of an additional 60 wolves, including Turner's, and new births are expected to create a viable population of 100 by 2005, at a cost of $7.2 million.

What worries the ranchers is that Fish and Wildlife expects and hopes the animals will migrate to New Mexico's Gila National Forest, just west of Hillsboro.

The ranchers are concerned new land-use restrictions will follow to protect the endangered animals. They sneer at the rule that lets them kill wolves only if they see them attacking livestock on their land and that requires government permission to kill one preying on their herd on public land.

Stephanie Bason, whose family's ranches total more than 100,000 acres, says it's a rare occasion when a rancher actually sees a wolf doing what comes naturally.

"We've got a fairly decent harmony going, and I don't know what the wolves will do to it," said Bason, 24, who married into one of the big ranching families in these parts. "I sure don't wish bad on anybody, but he (Turner) hasn't helped anybody, and what he does, it hurts people. I think they're trying to wipe out smaller businesses."

David Parsons, Mexican wolf recovery leader for Fish and Wildlife, said the agency's research shows few cattle would be killed by wolves.

"We estimate that once the area has reached its capacity to hold wolves, which we think will be about 100 wolves, that from one to 34 head of livestock - those would most likely be young calves - would be taken a year, and that was based on real-life experiences in Montana, Alberta and Minnesota and adjusted for differences that exist in grazing practices in the Southwest," Parsons said.

Nunn, whose family runs cattle on about 30,000 acres, says the town's animosity goes deeper than Turner's latest conservation scheme.

"It's mostly resentment," she says. "We've been ranchers all our lives and we're barely making it. We've struggled. And then someone like that comes along and buys everything up."

Nunn and other ranchers concede Turner's buffalo weren't the scourge they'd predicted. The animals didn't break fences or bring disease. And they didn't lower the tax base.

But the ranchers still don't like it.

"He claims that the buffalo don't hurt the country like cattle. Do they fly over it?" Nunn says. "He's just anti-rancher. Does he want all the land we own?"

No Turner fans

What irks some in this close-knit town perhaps more than the threat of wolves is the famed Turner attitude that helped propel him from billboard salesman to brash media tycoon.

Turner, the people of Hillsboro are quick to claim, doesn't spread his green around this struggling town - the bar and motel, two cafes, antique shop, post office, bank, bed and breakfast and two galleries that provide virtually no jobs for the area's young people.

Turner's hired only a handful of locals for low-level ranch jobs, they say, preferring to bring people in from out of state.

"To me, Ted Turner is not even a citizen of the county," Nunn says. "We never see him. He doesn't support anything. You never see him trading here."

Well, there was that contribution toward a badly needed defibrillator for paramedics at the fire station. And the Turner Foundation cites $220,000 in grants for "youth development activities" in nearby Truth or Consequences and three other New Mexico towns.

Now Turner is reaching outside his ranch boundaries and fighting a company poised to open the old Copper Flat Mine northeast of town, a business locals believe could resurrect Hillsboro, at least for a while.

The Alta Gold Co. of Henderson, Nev., says the mine will employ 180 people with an annual payroll of $5.5 million and 225 spin-off jobs during its 11- to 13-year operation. The mine had been open a year when it closed in 1986 after copper prices plunged.

"It was great for the economy," said a shopkeeper who didn't want to be identified by name. "They hired hundreds of people."

Turner contends the mine would contaminate water, drop the water table and dry up wells around Animas Creek, which runs through Ladder Ranch. He hired his own hydrologist to counter Alta Gold's favorable research.

"You know," Bason said, "we just wish he'd do his own thing and leave us alone."

That's not likely to happen.

Mike Phillips, who's responsible for restoring lost species on all of Turner's properties, and ranch manager Steve Dobrott have big plans for the Ladder - 260,000 acres that run from desert scrub and grasslands to subalpine conifer forest at the Continental Divide.

In addition to the wolf program, they are bringing back government-eradicated black-tailed prairie dogs and hope to get some California condors.

They point out new growth along the banks of Animas Creek, a result of removing cattle.

They have taken out more than 200 miles of interior fencing, giving free rein to buffalo and antelope relocated from Turner's nearby Armendaris Ranch.

And they have established a preserve where they release exotic chuckers and pheasants for guests' shooting pleasure.

Asked about community reaction to Turner's plans, Phillips shrugs. "When you change something so drastically, you get mixed feelings on it," he says. "New Mexico has been better than Montana."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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