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Making Her Mark

Mexican gray wolf making her mark at Eureka research center

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 11, 2008

By Kim McGuire

When Anna sees Sue Lindsey approaching her enclosure, she prances along the chain link fence, rubbing her furry body against it. She's glad to see her longtime friend.

Lindsey doesn't like to see wolves exhibit such ease with humans, but Anna is different. Unlike some of the Mexican gray wolves at the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center, Anna won't ever live in the wild.

Instead, she will likely live out her life at the center, where she will continue to play a vital role in the effort to restore Mexican gray wolves to their former range in the southwestern United States and central Mexico.

Anna, also known as number 685, is one of the most genetically valuable Mexican gray wolves living in captivity today.

She's also one of the most prolific. In 2005, she and her mate, Dude, had 12 puppies, the largest on record for Mexican gray wolves. That litter was one of four for Anna, dubbed "Super Mom" by those involved in the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort.

While certainly a favorite among staff and visitors to the center, Anna is about to increase her exposure when she appears in January on the cover of National Geographic magazine for an article about endangered species.

Many Mexican gray wolf supporters are hopeful Anna's appearance will bring some much-needed attention to the species, which faces an uphill battle to reclaim its former territory.

"Mexican wolves seem to be the forgotten and ignored wolf among the media, the public, and conservation organizations," said Rich Fredrickson, a University of Montana biologist.

He added that other gray wolves, like those reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, get far more attention even though Mexican gray wolves are far more rare.

The Mexican gray wolf recovery program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, had sought to restore about 100 wolves in the wild. Instead, there are about half that number roaming New Mexico and Arizona.

Many of the released wolves have been illegally shot or hit by cars, while others were killed by federal wildlife managers for preying on livestock.

"Everyone here is very excited about the fact Anna is going to be on the cover of National Geographic," said Lindsey, the Eureka center's director.

"But everyone involved in the program knows it's going to take a lot of Hail Marys coming together to make this a great comeback of a species."

Mexican gray wolves, also known as lobos, once roamed Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas and central Mexico. But with settlement came conflict, as wolves began preying on livestock.

By the 1970s, Mexican gray wolves were all but eliminated from their range in the Southwest, prompting federal wildlife managers to launch a captive breeding program. The Wild Canid center is the largest holder and breeder of Mexican gray wolves in the world; there are 47 breeding facilities in United States and Mexico.

Five wolves in Mexico were trapped between 1977 and 1980 as a last-ditch effort to save the species. These wolves became the genetic cornerstone of the captive breeding program and were known as the McBride lineage. Two other pure genetic pools were later confirmed, the Aragon and Ghost Ranch lineages.

Recovery team members began breeding the three lines in the mid-1990s.Only four Ghost Ranch wolves, however, successfully reproduced.

One of those wolves was Santa Ana, and old wolf in poor health that had never bred. But in 2001, the Wild Canid center managed to pair him with Tanamara, a female who gave birth to three puppies, including Anna.

She was the only puppy from that litter to survive. The center's staff was forced to hand-raise her.

Today there are very few Ghost Ranch wolves in the captive breeding program and even fewer in the wild, making Anna a critical genetic link.

"Recovery is not about an individual, but about the population as a whole," said Maggie Dwire, who heads the Mexican gray recovery program for the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Services. "And Anna/685 has definitely done her part for the population. She's proven quite valuable with these offspring she's produced."

Anna's son, Laredo, is considered one of the recovery program's success stories. He was released in 2006 and is now the alpha male in one of 12 established packs.

"His pack, the Bluestem pack, has caused very little trouble," Dwire said. "They all have very good hunting skills,which has served them well."

Lindsey said Anna's mothering instincts are quite good. Because she produces such large litters, the pups are forced to develop good communication skills, which helps them interact with other wolves. Two of her pups born this year are being considered for release next year.

"A lot of wolves in the captive breeding program won't ever be released,"Dwire said. "Anna/685 is a good example of one our wolves that is definitely helping out our wild population even though she will never step foot in the wild."