Depending on whom you ask, Mexican wolves are either in dire need of federal protection or dangerous beasts threatening children on their way to school.

The Mexican wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf, and was reintroduced into the American Southwest by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1990s. The initial population of 11 wolves expanded to around 75 by late 2012. While the USFWS has proposed to lift federal protections on other populations of wolves in the U.S., the agency proposed in June to add the Mexican wolf to its list of endangered species. This move would mean that people could not legally kill the wolves except in rare circumstances, and it would also expand the animals’ legal ranging area.

Many ranchers and other rural residents strongly oppose the move, painting a portrait of the Mexican wolf as a menace.

In the village of Reserve, N.M., kids wait for the bus in protective cages made of wood and chicken wire. It’s unclear just how many cages there are, or how long they’ve been around, but the conservative group Americans For Prosperity has made them a centerpiece of a documentary titled “Wolves in Government Clothing.” For Americans For Prosperity, the fight over wolf protections taps into larger issues about how much control the federal government should exert over local authorities.

“The wolf is symbolic of a larger fact: The federal government is running roughshod over private-property rights," David Spady, California director of Americans for Prosperity and producer of the anti-wolf documentary, told the Los Angeles Times. "We at the local level believe that we understand the needs of our place, rather than somebody in Washington, D.C."

Meanwhile, many biologists are skeptical about the actual danger posed by wolves and the need for cages. Wolf advocates note that there has been no record of wolf attacks in either New Mexico or Arizona. Plus, the Mexican wolf is a much slighter beast than a Yellowstone wolf, weighing in at just 60 to 80 pounds, compared to their northern cousins, which can tip the scales at more than 130 pounds.

“A child in a rural area is more likely to [be hurt or killed in] an incident with an off-road all-terrain vehicle, or in an encounter with a feral dog, or in a hunting accident,” Utah State University wildlife ecologist Daniel MacNulty told National Geographic. “There are very, very few instances in North America of wolves hurting anybody, let alone children.”

Some residents have told of children getting cornered by wolves, and ranchers fear losing livestock in already troubled times. But when it comes to sheep and cattle being killed, experts say the real menaces are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions and vultures.

Many people "attach a lot of rancor to wolf recovery that isn't about wolves," said John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe, N.M.-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians, told the L.A. Times. "It's a symbol. It's about the loss of political capital, the economic decline of rural life. Wolves are a surrogate for all the changes that are happening that are very frightening."