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Remembering Ernesta

By Jean Ossorio, posted 3/4/15

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Whenever a wolf I’ve known dies, I think of the familiar quotation from Rudyard Kipling:
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware/Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Kipling’s admonition applies as well to wild wolves as to domestic dogs.

During the almost 17 years that Mexican gray wolves have been back in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, my heart has been torn many times: from Hawk’s Nest AM131 (Maska), the first Mexican wolf we observed in the wild in 1999, euthanized for an inoperable brain tumor only a year after we saw him and heard him howl among the trees above the Campbell Blue Creek, to San Mateo AM1157, whose pack left tracks in mud that friends and I cast, and serenaded me as I broke camp near Mangas Mountain one frosty morning in 2011. His death last October is still under investigation.

One rarely has a close encounter with a wild wolf. A fleeting glimpse among the ponderosas, a few loud howls in the darkness near the tent, or a distant view of members of a pack as they traverse an open meadow are enough to initiate the animals into the ranks of “my” lobos. Several sightings of Hawk’s Nest AF1110 with her mate and offspring and an operatic concert one dark, rainy night, for which Peter and I had the best sleeping bags in the house, conferred on her a special status. When she died of a lightning strike in the monsoon season of 2011, we mourned as for a human friend.

The circumstances surrounding a lobo death affect how one feels about it. After watching seven members of the Francisco Pack work their way across a snow-covered cienega (wet meadow) in October 2000, the four pups slowing the procession by rolling and playing in the drifts, we felt a strong attachment to the little family. Several years later I was on my way to join a pack trip into the Gila Wilderness when I heard that Francisco AF511, affectionately known as Brünnhilde for her imposing size and strength, had died of hyperthermia in captivity, not long after being removed from the wild with her mate and pups, because the adults had killed too many cattle. I felt a pall of sadness hanging over the trip, although finding wolf tracks in the trail in the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Gila River somewhat assuaged my grief.

When wolves whose stories we’ve followed are shot, whether by members of the public or by Wildlife Services, as part of a “control” action in response to livestock killing, sadness is tinged with anger. I still hold a grudge against the unknown shooters who cut short the lives of wolves like F644, a few years after we watched her playing in the snow with the other three Francisco pups, and Hawk’s Nest AF1208, daughter of AF1110, another wolf we observed and photographed before she was felled by a bullet.

Before Ernesta, all the lobos I’ve mourned were in the wild when I first encountered them. She was different. I followed her mother, Anna’s, story from the time she was a pup at the captive breeding facility in Missouri now known as the Endangered Wolf Center. Anna was the sole survivor of a litter of three puppies born to a first-time mom. When her mother wasn’t up to the task of rearing the pups, Anna was hand-reared with the permission of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She proved to be quite a mother when she grew up, successfully raising a large number of pups during her breeding life.

The little female pup known as fp1126 was a member of Anna’s 2008 litter. As was the practice at the Endangered Wolf Center, a supporter of the facility, Linda Straubinger, had the privilege of naming her. She chose the name Ernesta, to honor her late father, Ernest, with the added “a” at the end, to make her name sound feminine.

In October 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service selected Ernesta as a candidate for release into the wild. She made the journey from her home for the previous two years, the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, to an enclosure in the rolling, desert hills of Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. There she was evaluated for suitability for release, paired with a male wolf, and prepared for a life in the wild.

I was thrilled to learn that the mate chosen for Ernesta was M1051, who was born in the wild, but removed to captivity in 2007 as one of a litter of seven tiny pups of the Saddle Pack. His entire pack was placed in captivity due to conflicts with livestock, a process which we had followed with anger and sadness. Now this wild born Saddle wolf was to be given a second chance at life as a wild wolf.

Our excitement mounted when we were asked to serve as “pen sitters” for M1051 and a pregnant F1126 in their pre-release pen in the Apache National Forest in Arizona for ten days in May 2013. We scrambled to make arrangements to board our dog and pack the gear and food necessary for ten days in a Fish and Wildlife Service trailer parked a short distance down the dirt road that ended at the pen.

Our duties included observing the wolves each day from a blind high on a hill overlooking the pen, recording our observations of their behavior, reporting anything out-of-the-ordinary to the field team in Alpine, AZ, keeping an eye out for anyone violating the forest closure order that applied to a small area around the pen and the dead end road into the area, repairing or replacing missing or damaged closure signs, and monitoring the radio frequencies of any wild wolves that might possibly show up in the vicinity.

After securing our belongings in the trailer in the late afternoon of May 9th, we climbed up the trail, marked with orange flagging, that we affectionately dubbed “the breadcrumb trail,” to the blind. We stuffed ourselves into the tiny, camouflage tent, with its small, open window allowing a narrow view of the pen. In the gathering dusk, we saw M1051 lying outside the wooden den box. We did not see F1126, but assumed she was in the den, possibly feeding pups, as it was near her due date and the preceding pair of pen sitters thought she might already have whelped.

On May 10th, we observed both wolves, although F1126 was more elusive and difficult to photograph than M1051. Both wolves moved around the pen, and at one point, seemed to be paying attention to something on the hill opposite the blind. Ravens in the vicinity were very noisy.

We continued to observe the wolves daily. On May 12th, two members of the interagency field team from the field team fed the wolves and topped off their water pans. In order to minimize the disturbance to the lobos, we stayed behind. However, Quinn Harrison of the Arizona Game and Fish Department kindly agreed to take a few photos with my camera through the openings in the chain link fence.

On May 16th, when Jeff Dolphin and Allison Greenleaf from the field team arrived, they had a surprise for us. We were allowed to accompany them for the brief time it took to toss some carnivore logs and road killed deer into the pen and fill the water pans from outside the fence.  We parked at the lower end of the pen, which was masked by green screening material.  I was able to take a few photos through the chain link fence (unfortunately right into the sun) while the others handled the feeding and watering tasks. The entire process took less than ten minutes. The wolves, obviously unhappy at the intrusion, ran nervously around the pen until we left.

Late in the afternoon we hiked to the blind for a brief observation period. Both wolves spent most of the time lying down, digesting a meal of fresh venison. Numerous ravens congregated in the pen, attracted by the feast. By this time it appeared that F1126 had lost her litter of pups. She did not appear to be lactating, and she spent a considerable amount of time outside the den box.

At about 11:00 that evening, we awoke to the sound of wolf howls: musical, legato, and medium to medium-low in pitch, without the yips and barks that often characterize coyote howls. It was difficult to be certain of the direction of the sounds from inside the trailer, even with the windows open. We decided to prop the door open, too, closing only the screen door, in case the wolves howled again.

Even at home I’m an early riser. Going to bed with the last rays of the setting sun, sleeping with the trailer door and windows open, and operating on Arizona’s Mountain Standard Time, rather than our usual daylight saving time all contributed to even earlier mornings. The faint glow on the eastern horizon grew brighter as I stepped sleepily down the trailer stairs at 4:40 a.m. on May 17th to the sound of howls. A series of single howls from the general direction of the pen, several seconds apart, was soon followed by more elaborate phrases with multiple notes. Apparently the wolves found the dawn light inspiring.

By 6:30 a.m. we had finished breakfast and hiked to the blind for another session of observation. Ravens were active again. Both wolves appeared and walked slowly around the pen. At about 6:40 we noticed one of the more interesting behaviors we observed during while pen sitting. Here are my verbatim notes from my notebook:

“F1126 trots once or twice. She urinates near west fence. M1051 approaches spot and urinates where she did (sniffs ground first).”

This tandem urination apparently plays a part in forming and maintaining pair bonds in wolves. Mech and Boitani describe its function thus:

“However, new pairs form at all times of the year (L. D. Mech, unpublished data), and existing pairs remain together year-round, their tandem urination conveying essentially the same information as a wedding ring does (Rothman and Mech 1979; Mertl-Millhollen et al. 1986).” (L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani, “Wolf Social Ecology,” in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani, eds. , 2003, p. 42) 

When we returned to the blind for a late afternoon observation, we found M1051 and F1126 chewing on deer parts. Ravens hung around watching for opportunities to scavenge. As we left shortly after 6:00 p.m., the wolves were lying next to each other in a depression in the ground near the south end of the pen.

May 19th was our last day as pen sitters. The coyotes serenaded us for twenty minutes, beginning around 4:40 a.m. Occasionally we could hear a wolf howl during the coyotes’ breaks for breath. Then, at 5:35, we heard four minutes of wolf howls in the classic descending, mournful phrases of lobo song.

When we arrived at the blind a few minutes later, no wolves were visible. Some coyotes howled and barked far away to the southwest. The wolves remained silent. After a while, both M1051 and F1126 appeared. He sniffed where the two had previously chewed on a deer leg. She rolled on the ground. After the two wandered around the pen, stopping for a drink at the water pans, F1126 went back and rolled on the ground again in the vicinity of the deer bones. Then M1051 followed suit. Both wolves later stopped to chew on something in the area—probably the remains of the deer leg.

We watched the two for nearly two hours. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, after spending over ten days watching and worrying about our charges. The road ahead for Ernesta and her mate, like that of all Mexican wolves in the wild, would not be easy.

Ernesta (F1126) and Wesley (M1051) were not released in 2013. Ernesta had, indeed, lost her puppies. Meanwhile, Rim AM1107 had been hanging around the pen, fence fighting with the wolves inside. These conditions were not favorable for a successful release.

Instead, F1126 was paired with a recently captured wild wolf, in the hope that a mate with wild experience might help ensure the survival of the pair and their pups after their release in 2014. The pair, with Ernesta pregnant, were released in the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona on April 9, 2014. Unfortunately, M1249 didn’t remain with F1126. She whelped a litter of six pups alone. Worried that she would be unsuccessful in rearing the pups without the help of a mate, the field team picked her up along with all six pups. Two were cross-fostered into the Dark Canyon Pack den in New Mexico. The rest remained with F1126. M1051 was introduced to the pups, accepting them as his own, and the little family was released in the Gila Wilderness on July 23rd, 2014.

The pack remained together in the wilderness while the pups were small. Later in the year they began to move more widely, sometimes together, and other times separately.

We were eating lunch in Alpine, Arizona, on February 13th, 2015, having come into town from our campsite in Mexican wolf country, when my cell phone rang. “Ernesta is dead,” said the caller. “I’m not surprised,” I replied, aware of the fact that the field team had failed to locate the Coronado Pack alpha female, AF1126, on the most recent telemetry flight. My fears for her safety had been justified.

To be a wolf is to live wild, feed and care for the young, without fences. Wolves are always at risk from humans’ bullets and vehicles, but also from hooves of elk, ambush by mountain lions, venomous rattlesnakes, untreated diseases, and starvation. If a wolf is lucky enough to escape gunshots, accidents, and disease, old age takes its toll of worn teeth, dimmed vision, and a slower pace.

We tend to remember firsts and lasts. Ernesta was the first Mexican gray wolf to have pups from her litter cross-fostered into the den of another pack in the wild. Her genetic legacy lives on. Her death is sad and her contribution deeply moving, but she will not be the last wolf to contribute genes to the wild population. Peter and I will continue to honor her life by working to ensure that the generations that follow us will never feel the inconsolable sadness of witnessing the last Mexican wolf, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, dying alone in captivity.



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