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Local pilot to fly Mexican wolves across country

Part of group that champions environmental causes

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By Susan Morse
smorse@seacoastonline.com

Pilot Tom Haas might not be flying by sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, but for four endangered Mexican wolves he's taking cross country this week, he might as well be Santa Claus.

Haas, of Durham, is taking off from Portsmouth International Airport at Pease on Monday and heading to Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia. There, members of the National Zoo in Washington will load one male and two female wolves onto his Pilatus PC-12 for transport to a protected wildlife area outside of Albuquerque, N.M.

The six-passenger plane will carry the wolves in three individual crates, a handler from the zoo and Haas' business partner, Janice Newman. It will make one fuel stop mid-route. Five hours later, Haas and crew will return with another Mexican wolf, an injured female that lost her pups in California wildfires and her mate to cancer.

Haas is donating his plane, the fuel and his time on his first mission for LightHawk, a nonprofit organization of American and Canadian pilots who champion environmental causes. Haas joined the board of directors this year.

"It's just a real pleasure to help repopulate some of our endangered species," said Haas.

Haas, who's been flying for 34 years and is a flight instructor at Port City Air, has never transported wolves before. He's known of other LightHawk pilots who have flown Peregrine falcons and otters to new habitats.

The Mexican wolves he's transporting are smaller than the larger, more commonly known gray wolf, said Kelley Tucker, LightHawk's Eastern Region program director who works near Lake Placid, N.Y.

"It was hunted almost to extinction," Tucker said of the Mexican wolf. "There were a couple of handful of animals left in the U.S. and Mexico."

Both countries have been working to save the species, she said.

The three going to Albuquerque include a male with arthritis, named Cheveya, who is around age 11 and will benefit from the dryer climate. His companions are Catella and Nieca, sisters that are 4 years old.

The animals aren't usually named, said Tucker. She thinks all three were born in captivity. In Washington, they were not on display as zoo animals, she said. In New Mexico, they will be placed in the Wildlife West Nature Park, a new preserve that's billed as an "enhanced zoo."

"They're trying to keep (the wolves) safe and at the highest level of nutrition," said Tucker. "There's no stress, they're in a very natural environment. They're there to learn to be wolves."

The hope is the wolves will breed, and that they or their offspring will be able to be released into the wild. So far, more than 50 Mexican wolves have been released, she said, under the program Species Survival Plan, which works with zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The three wolves are also being moved because the National Zoo is undergoing renovations close to where they were living, she said.

The female Mexican wolf returning with Haas is known only as 749. She was part of a pack at a facility in California caught in the wildfires, said Tucker. The wolf suffered minor burns and lost many of her pups in the fire. She and her mate were sent to New Mexico, where the plan was to release them into the wild. Then her mate died of cancer.

The wolf is showing the stress of her ordeal and is going to a facility in New York to recover, said Tucker.

While there, she is expected, "to meet some new, good-looking men," said Tucker.

"We're honored to get to help them," she said, "to get these wolves to safe places."

LightHawk has been around for 30 years and until 2003, was concentrated in the West. Six years ago, a similar eastern group called Northern Wings merged with LightHawk.

Rudy Engholm, who headed Northern Wings, is now executive director of LightHawk, working out of Portland, Maine.

An estimated 170 pilots throughout the country donate flights, said Engholm. Locally they've made aerial trips for the Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy, Seacoast Science Center, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, among others.

"We got involved this last year working with the loon counts," said Engholm. " ... We've done osprey counts, counting osprey chicks from the air."

The other part of LightHawk's mission is education.

"It is so important policy makers see the impact of what they're deciding," said Engholm. "On the ground there are red states, blue states, private property and public property. When people come back from a flight, they're not the things they're talking about. They're talking about things that unite us. ... We forget what an amazing thing it is to see the Earth from above. When you fly over glaciers, or clear-cuts, there's a different kind of impact from seeing it that way. It's not just joy rides."

In one instance, said Engholm, he took a Realtor on a flight over the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, a fast-growing area dealing with sprawl and growth.

"He made a comment when he came back," said Engholm. "(He said) 'Things are going to be very different now. My first rule is, do no harm.' ... Sometimes it does (help) and sometimes it doesn't. It's not like someone comes back like Scrooge, comes back a changed person. Over the years, there's been enough of those, people saying, 'I had no idea.'"

This story appeared on December 20 at: http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20091220-NEWS-912200335