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Female wolf is no longer leader of the pack

Bluestem pack Alpha Female heads out on her own

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May 14, 2009
BARRY NOREEN
THE GAZETTE

It happens to the best of them.

After 12 years, the leader of the pack has been replaced by her own daughter. Known to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as Alpha Female 521 and formerly named Estrella when she lived at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the wolf now runs alone in Eastern Arizona's high country.

AF521 (see photo on my blog) is an endangered Mexican wolf whose prolific breeding made her the star (Estrella is Spanish for "star") of the federal program, which operates in New Mexico and Arizona with assists from several zoos.

From radio signals emitted from her collar, researchers know AF521 isn't with the rest of the so-called Bluestem Pack and she's not about to whelp another litter of pups. This is the time of year the lead female of a pack digs a den, and if so, her radio collar signals would be coming from one location.

Instead, those nearly stationary signals appear to be coming from a daughter AF521 gave birth to in 2006.

The wolf once known to Colorado Springs zoo visitors as Estrella "is no longer alpha female of the pack," said Maggie Dwire, a wildlife biologist in Albuquerque, N.M. "Around the 10th or 11th of February she started out on her own. She came back to the pack but she left at the end of March and she's been on her own ever since."

Life away from the pack is tougher for any wolf, but Dwire said U.S. Forest Service rangers saw AF521 recently and "she looked good." At 12, Dwire said, "she is one of the oldest (Mexican) wolves. She's a really experienced wild animal and she knows what she's doing."

One of just 52 wild Mexican wolves, AF521 whelped three litters in captivity before being released to the wild with a litter in 2002. For a while she was one of the attractions at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

A walkway to the Wolf Woods exhibit at the zoo still is paved with bricks purchased by individuals, families and elementary school classes from around the city. Spokesman Sean Anglum said the zoo now has three males at Wolf Woods but there are no plans for them to be reintroduced to the wild.

After she left the zoo, Estrella became AF521. Researchers say it's hard to predict how a zoo-raised wolf will behave in the wild, but AF521 turned out to be the best den-digger and the most prolific mother of them all.

For the wild Mexican wolf population, it's been tough. Seven of the wolves were shot in 2003; five more were shot in 2005.

For the past two years the population has flatlined. The federal agency's goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2005 fell far short.

Between Mother Nature and riflemen in pickups, being a Mexican wolf is a tough way to make a living.

"People try to view them as either demonic killers or high-spirited beings," Dwire said.

Oblivious to such balderdash, AF521 is probably doing what comes naturally today - looking for a meal.