Ernesta at the Brookfield Zoo
After living in captivity for five years, a Mexican gray wolf once on display at Brookfield Zoo has met a mate and is expected to be released this spring to roam the Apache National Forest near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
There, biologists hope, Ernesta and her mate will raise pups and be part of a growing success story: the reintroduction into the wild of one of the most endangered land mammals in North America.
Ernesta was born in a Missouri wolf facility in 2008 and moved with her siblings to Brookfield Zoo in 2010. In 2012 she was chosen to participate in “wolf boot camp” at Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro, N.M., and become prepared for release in the wild. Experts believe she’s ready to go.
“The wolves tend to mate for life so if they really like each other we would expect her to stick with him,” said Maggie Dwire, biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, N.M.
Mexican wolves once numbered in the thousands in the Southwest, but were wiped out in the wild of the U.S. by the mid-1970s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as endangered in 1976. In the late ’70s, five were caught wild in Mexico to pair with some in captivity, starting the captive breeding program to save the animal from extinction, Dwire said. In 1998, the first 11 Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the landscape.
From those original captive breeding pairs in the late ’70s, the population has grown to include 83 wolves in the wild of Arizona and New Mexico, based on a field count in January, which showed an increase of about 10 percent from 2012. There also are 300 in captivity at zoos and facilities in the U.S. and Mexico.
It was during that recent count when workers were able to capture Ernesta’s mate. The two wolves now live together in a 1.5-acre wilderness area.
Breeding season is February and March and if Ernesta continues to be receptive to her new mate, the two will be released about midway through the 63-day gestation period, before she has pups.
“Part of the plan is to let her get her feet on the ground before she has pups,” Dwire said. “We’re hoping because he is a male with success in the wild that he will teach her the ropes.”
This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 16, 2014.