Early January 2006 was unseasonably warm and dry in Mexican wolf country. Little snow remained on the ground when Peter and I pitched our tent at the edge of Double Cienega, a pair of large, grassy, wet meadows in the mountains of eastern Arizona. We planned to spend our winter wolf trip, a tradition we have followed since our first such adventure in 2001, camping, hiking, and traveling the back roads of the forest looking for wolf tracks and scat, listening for howls, and hoping to get very lucky and actually catch a fleeting glimpse of one of the approximately 60 lobos that roamed the Apache National Forest in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The odds of a sighting were not in our favor.
We had finished an early supper, packed our food and dishes away in the car, and were sitting by our tent enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, when Peter spotted a pair of canids (members of the dog family) working their way up the meadow. The two animals, which were easily distinguished from coyotes by their rounded ears, broad faces and muzzles, and large nose pads, slipped through a break in the fence. When we stood up to get a better look at the pair, the smaller animal dashed for the trees.
The larger of the two obligingly stopped atop a gopher mound and turned to look at us, giving us a good view of the dark radio collar around its neck. After a brief period of apparent indecision, it turned and ran after its companion, disappearing into the woods. We later confirmed with members of the interagency field team, that the wolves we had seen were almost certainly Rim Pack M992 and F858.
The following morning we were able to locate wolf tracks in the soft earth of the gopher mound and pace off the distance—approximately 130 yards.
Page from my field notebook documenting our
observation of Rim M992 and F858 on January 7, 2006.
(Jean Ossorio photo)
By early 2007, AM992 had been deposed by his brother, M991, who, in an episode worthy of a soap opera, was found dead in April. At the end of the year, AF858 found a third mate, M1107, a Luna Pack disperser who had been captured by the Mexican wolf field team in New Mexico and released near her in hopes of providing her with a mate. In this case, their matchmaking worked. Meanwhile, M992 moved on to New Mexico, where he mated with Francisco F923, forming the Dark Canyon Pack.
When you see a wolf in the wild, you don’t easily forget the experience. The wolf becomes, at least for me, a member of my circle of friends---a living, breathing creature whose story and fate become a matter of concern. AM992 was one of those friends. In the years that have elapsed since we watched him, ever so briefly, he continued living his lobo life in the canyons of the Gila high country on his own terms. We have spent numerous days and nights looking for sign of his Dark Canyon family in their usual haunts. On New Year’s Day 2014, as we drove home from our annual winter trip, deep in a canyon where the sun hadn’t yet melted the remains of the last snowfall, we came across a maze of wolf tracks.
(Jean Ossorio photo)
When we returned home, we checked the flight location reports and found that the Dark Canyon Pack, including AM992, had been within two miles of the place where we found the tracks two days later. We hadn’t see the elusive lobo, but we had undoubtedly found his tracks, along with those of his family. This could even be one of his partly melted tracks!
(Jean Ossorio photo)
For the first few years that AM992 and AF923 were together, they produced only a single pup that lived to the end of the year of its birth, but beginning in 2011, the Dark Canyon Pack had at least one pup each year that survived to adulthood. In 2013 they had two known pups at the end of the year. Their parenting skills made them good candidates for cross-fostering, a practice in which pups from one set of parents are placed into the den of a different mother wolf to be reared as her own. It was tried for the first time in the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program in 2014. (For more about how the process works and why it is being done, click here.)
On May 15, 2014, the Mexican wolf interagency field team placed two squirming pups born in the wild to a female whose mate had left her to give birth alone into the Dark Canyon den. There they joined three Dark Canyon pups. AM992 and AF923 took good care of the little family. Four pups were seen during the end of year survey. One of the Dark Canyon pair’s pups had been caught and now wore a radio collar. The three remaining pups had not been caught and collared, but since the Dark Canyon pair had only three pups to begin with, it was clear that at least one of the cross-fostered pups had survived. AM992 and AF923 had made lobo history.
Remote camera photo of Dark Canyon AM992 and a pup at
a food cache, taken on June 27, 2014. This could be one of
the cross-fostered pups, or it could be his own pup.
(Interagency field team photo)
In May 2016 the field team found AF923 dead. For a few weeks, AM992 remained in the pack’s usual haunts, but by July, he had begun to wander outside their territory, as wolves left alone frequently do. (Read a remembrance of AF923 here.)
On our most recent winter trip to Mexican wolf country, we spent New Year’s Eve in our tent at a location not too far from his most recent recorded location. The following night, we camped near the site of those tracks we saw on New Year’s Day 2014. We found some probable lobo tracks, but it’s doubtful they were those of AM992. There appeared to be tracks of more than a single, wandering wolf.
Then, in the Mexican wolf monthly update for February 2017, we read the chilling, but not unexpected words:
Dark Canyon Pack (collared AM992)
AM992 was located dead in February, the incident is under investigation.
Dark Canyon AM992 would have been fourteen years old in April, a great age for a wild wolf. His contribution to his species was enormous. Goodbye, old friend.
Some of AM992's legacy. Wild-born and cross-fostered pups of the Dark Canyon Pack, August 2014
(Photo by USFWS)