Mexican Wolves Set Free In The Gila Wilderness
by David R. Parsons, Wildlife Biologist
The Mule Pack, so named for their mode of transportation into the heart of the Gila Wilderness, set themselves free from their temporary nylon mesh holding pen on March 25, 2000. They were the first of their kind to roam free and beautify the Gila Wilderness with their presence and their howls in about 60 years. I was the one chosen to occupy a camp about a mile from the pen and monitor their release.
On the first day of my solo monitoring adventure, all was quiet and the signals from the wolves’ radio collars were coming from the direction of the release pen. I occupied most of the day destroying several fire rings that were marring the wilderness character around the nearby Lilley Park Spring. Water is scarce in the uplands of the Gila Wilderness and human camps near springs interfere with the animals’ access to these life-sustaining aquatic features. My goal was to restore the pristine beauty of the area and discourage future human camps near the spring. It was hard but satisfying work. By the end of the day I had removed all of the half dozen or so fire rings and restored the ground to its natural look—cleaning house for the new family about to move in.
That evening I was relaxing in camp after dinner as twilight was fading into darkness. It was quiet, very quiet, in my wilderness camp a dozen miles from the nearest road. Then, without warning a long, low wolf howl broke the silence and captured my immediate attention. They had chewed out and were out exploring their ancestral homelands near my camp. It was nearly dark but I peered hard into the surrounding Ponderosa pine woodlands and just caught a glimpse of the gray form of one of the lobos of the Mule Pack walking through the woods.
For a wildlife biologist who had just spent 10 solid years of my career trying to save this rare wolf from extinction, this was the payoff, a highlight of my professional career. I felt incredibly fortunate to be the first human to experience the presence of free-roaming lobos in the Gila Wilderness since not long after Aldo Leopold had his famous “green fire” experience in this wild country in the early 1900s. If only Aldo could have been here to experience this momentous event with me!
This incredible experience has given me a greater appreciation for what Aldo Leopold meant when he said “[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The rewilding of the Gila Wilderness with its majestic top predator is “right” for reasons that became abundantly clear to me after spending a week in their new wilderness home. Hearing their howls from my camp reminded me that the Gila would be quite a different and more ecologically complete place from now on.
Of course, the return of Mexican wolves to the Gila Wilderness would not have been possible without the long-term support of thousands of wolf recovery advocates. Your continued support remains critically important for the future of the Mexican gray wolf, but I strongly encourage you to enjoy the fruits of your advocacy. Take a hike in the Gila—Wolf Country once again!