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Are ‘kid cages’ protecting N.M. children, or a case of ranchers crying wolf?

Catron County Sheriff Shawn Menges said the structures are not new, but their purpose is under renewed scrutiny as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposes to extend Endangered Species Act protections for an estimated 75 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. (Courtesy: David Spady)

A child waiting for a school bus in Reserve, a tiny community in rural New Mexico, may feel a little caged in, perhaps claustrophobic — but that’s precisely the point.

About a half-dozen wooden and mesh "kid cages" are located at bus stops in the rural, western New Mexico town, where there have been sightings of the Mexican gray wolf. Some of the 300 or so residents say the shelters could save the life of a child who waits in the predawn hours for a ride to school, but critics say they are part of an effort by ranchers to demonize the animals.

“They’re designed so children can step up in them and sit down and wait for the bus,” Catron County Sheriff Shawn Menges told FoxNews.com. “What happens out here in these rural areas is that most of the time, the parents are going to sit and wait with the children [for the bus] in their vehicle, but that’s not always true.”

"They’re designed so children can step up in them and sit down and wait for the bus."

- Catron County Sheriff Shawn Menges

The shelters have been in place for about a decade, but their purpose is under renewed scrutiny as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposes to extend Endangered Species Act protections for an estimated 75 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. Ranchers are opposed to the extension, and claim that the wolves, which prey on livestock but have not been known to attack humans in the area, should be hunted.

Earlier this year, according to Menges, a wolf frightened a mother and her young son near a bus stop on the outskirts of town. It was removed by FWS agents, but word of the encounter spread.

“She saw the wolf and tried to make it leave, but it didn’t,” he said. “It moved toward her instead.”

The cages were installed on orders of Reserve Independent Schools officials, according to Menges. Cindy Shellhorn, principal of Reserve High School, initially told FoxNews.com that the school was “not involved” in the cages and referred additional questions to local community members. Shellhorn later acknowledged that the shelters were constructed under the direction of a previous superintendent and school board.

“Some of them are still in place and students are able to access them as shelters from weather, etc., at bus stops,” Shellhorn told FoxNews.com in an email.

The cages are unnecessary and are part of a larger “anti-government” fear held by some in the Southwest, according to Eva Sargent, director of Southwest programs for Defenders of Wildlife.

“There’s been absolutely zero, nada, zilch attacks on humans by wolves in the Southwest, so I think these cages are a reaction to a non-problem,” Sargent said. “For some people, it’s a political ploy to bring attention to other things. A lot of the fear stirred up by these kid cages, at the base of it, is an anti-government fear and the wolves are standing in for that.”

Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, are the most endangered type of wolf in the world. They typically prey on elk and deer, but are also known to consume rabbits and squirrels as well. Defenders of Wildlife officials say the wolves were bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in Arizona beginning in 1998 after being wiped out in the United States. An estimated 75 Mexican wolves now remain in Arizona and New Mexico.

In the previous four decades, only three wolf attacks on humans have been documented in North America, Sargent said, and none of those incidents involved Mexican gray wolves. Furthermore, those attacks occurred in Canada and Alaska, thousands of miles away from Catron County’s kid cages.

“The thing you have to balance is the small number of wolves with the need to recover wolves,” Sargent said when asked how best to balance public safety and the livelihood of the wild animals.

Additional protections being sought by FWS officials under the Endangered Species Act make it illegal to kill wolves in most instances and would significantly expand the overall area where wolves can run without interference.

FWS officials, meanwhile, declined to comment on the shelters when contacted by FoxNews.com.

“The Service has not been involved with [the community] regarding this issue,”a spokesman wrote in an email.

David Spady, state director of Americans for Prosperity in California, said he first learned of the cages during conversations with Catron County police officials and later profiled them in his documentary film, “Wolves in Government Clothing,” which draws parallels between the animals and a rampant federal government.

“This situation exemplifies a problem with the Endangered Species Act — the interests of wild animals are sometimes placed above the interests of real people,” Spady told FoxNews.com. “Kid cages give context to the extreme nature of environmental policies that seek to change human behaviors in order to return ecosystems to something from a bygone era.”

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said the Mexican gray wolves are particularly problematic because those that remain were bred in captivity and then reintroduced into the wild — making them unafraid of people or structures.

“In Catron County, the wolves were following some kids home from schools, some of them could no longer walk to the bus stop like they used to,” Cowan told FoxNews.com. “They are a constant problem and we spend a great deal of time and effort on this issue.”