New rules are expanding the territory of the endangered Mexican gray wolf beyond a limited area of New Mexico and Arizona, to the Mexican border and Texas state line.
"We have at least fourth generation wolves out there now," said Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
"The wolves are having pups that are growing up and forming their own packs, which are also having pups as well, which is really exciting," said Barrett.
Wolves are territorial and the expanded area is expected to help improve breeding opportunities. It will also provide more space for releasing captive bred wolves that are part of the recovery program.
This time of year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does an annual counts of the endangered species in New Mexico and Arizona to check on the recovery effort. There were at least 83 wolves according to the count last year.
The Gila National Forest in New Mexico is home to a few packs included in the count. From the air, a spotter plane used a transmitter to track wolves wearing special collars. A helicopter then moved in, and using a tranquilizer dart, targeted select wolves for capture.
A team on the ground checked the health of the wolves on the tailgate of a pickup, transforming it into an exam table.
"His general assessment is good and his vitals are quite good," said Susan Dicks, a veterinarian with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service after examining a young male.
The wolf is significant because his mother was bred in captivity but later gave birth to a litter of five puppies in the wild. After she lost her mate, she was returned to captivity.
"We know she couldn't raise them by herself so we brought her back in, but before we did, we took two of her pups and put them in a den with other parents, another pack so those wild wolves could raise them," said Barrett.
The cross-fostering worked.
"Hormones and biology told us this should be the case but there always has to be a first one. This is pretty much our first one so it's exciting," said Dicks.
Biologists put a radio collar on the 8-month-old wolf so they can track his movements. The new rules give Mexican wolves more territory to roam but also allows more killing of wolves if they attack livestock, pets or working dogs.
"What we're trying to do with our new rules is to find that balance between recovering the Mexican wolf in the wild and also finding ways to help offset some of those effects wolves may have on livestock producers," said Barrett.
Mexican gray wolves were hunted nearly to extinction in the U.S. in the 1970s, and in Mexico in the 1980s, as part of a predator eradication effort.
The U.S. and Mexico have successfully bred surviving wolves in captivity and a small number were released in 1998, as part of the recovery effort.
"I think maybe some better reasoning should have been used when they were released," said Shirley McKinnon, a cattle owner.
She and her husband raise a small herd on their land near the Gila National Forest. Losing even one cow can be costly.
"That and they've been getting anywhere from $1,600 to $3,000 for a cow-and-a-calf pair," said McKinnon. "If one gets killed and you have to wait very long on your reimbursement, it's going to be kind of tough," said McKinnon.
The wolf recovery program has a fund to reimburse ranchers who provide evidence their livestock was killed by a wolf. The Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council this fall began "payments for presence" to help offset the cost needed to protect herds from wolves including grazing practices, range riders, and other measures.
The council paid $85,500 to 26 Arizona and New Mexico livestock operators according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's webpage.
Most ranchers oppose the reintroduction of wolves, but realize the endangered species is here to stay.
"They're stuck here along with us," said Tom McKinnon. Asked whether ranchers and wolves can coexist he answered, "I imagine we have to or we're going to go to jail."
At least 55 wolves have been illegally killed since the recovery program started in 1998, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Environmental groups say the new rules do not go far enough to protect Mexican gray wolves in the wild and object to the cap of 325 wolves.
"The Mexican gray wolf recovery program has been hamstrung from the start, and this new management rule doesn't go nearly far enough to fix the problem," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Capping the population and keeping them out of the Grand Canyon and northern New Mexico will keep the lobo on the brink of extinction," said Robinson in a statement released on the center's webpage after the rules were finalized.
The young cross-fostered wolf examined and collared by biologists was set free a few hours later in the Gila National forest.
Still a little groggy from the tranquilizer, he stood staring back at the humans momentarily before taking off.
"He went off around the hill there and straight up," said Justin Martens, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
He was released in the forest area where he was captured so he could rejoin his pack.
"He'll probably be with them tonight."
The 8 month old wolf highlighted in this article has a unique history. His parents F1122 (Ernesta) and M1249 were selected to breed in captivity. The pair was released into the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in April 2014 where they had 6 pups (not 5 as stated in the article). M1249 did not stay with Ernesta and the pups and the IFT decided to place Ernesta and four of the pups back into captivity to monitor her and reintroduce her to a previous mate in hopes that he would assist in their care. Meanwhile, the other two pups were placed with the Dark Canyon Pack (AM992 & AF923) for them to cross-foster the pups in the wild. The wolf in this article (and video) is one of these two pups. This is the first time that Mexican wolves were successfully cross-fostered in the wild.
Below are excerpts from the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team’s (IFT) Monthly Status Reports that gives a little history on the 8 month old wolf that is highlighted in this article.
April 1-30, 2014
Coronado Pack (collared M1249 and Ernesta-F1126)
On April 9, the IFT released the Coronado Pack on the ASNF. The Coronado Pack initially stayed together but was subsequently split up by the Maverick Pack on April 12. .... M1249 traveled south onto the FAIR and has been on the FAIR since April 21. Ernesta-F1126 has stayed south of Wildcat Crossing. The IFT is monitoring Ernesta-F1126 to determine when the wolf will whelp its pups. The IFT does not believe M1249 will return to Ernesta-F1126.
May 1-31, 2014
Coronado Pack (collared M1249 and Ernesta-F1126)
In May M1249 and Ernesta-F1126 were still separated. On May 1, a food cache was started for Ernesta-F1126 and the IFT determined that Ernesta-F1126 had whelped pups. Ernesta-F1126 has no previous experience in the wild, and with no mate to assist her with hunting and rearing the pups, the IFT determined that the pups would not likely survive based on previous occurrences of inexperienced lone females being unsuccessful in raising pups in the wild. On May 14, trapping was initiated to catch and remove Ernesta-F1126 and her pups to captivity. On May 16, the IFT caught Ernesta-F1126 and located the den with 6 pups. The IFT removed Ernesta-F1126 to captivity with four of the pups and all of these wolves were alive at the end of May. The two remaining pups were translocated into the Dark Canyon Pack den in New Mexico for cross-fostering purposes to be raised by the Dark Canyon Pack.
June 1-30, 2014
Dark Canyon Pack (collared AM992, AF923 and M1293)
Throughout June, the IFT located this pack within its traditional territory in the west-central portion of the GNF. The Dark Canyon Pack continued to display denning behavior during the month of June. In May 2 pups from the Coronado Pack were cross-fostered into the Dark Canyon Pack. A food cache was established to help the Dark Canyon Pack care for the extra puppies. The IFT documented the three collared members of the Dark Canyon Pack utilizing the food cache during the month of June. Although the Dark Canyon Pack continues to display denning behavior the IFT has yet to document the presence of pups since the cross-fostering was implemented.
Our note - Ernesta was placed into captivity at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility with her four remaining pups where she was re-introduced to her mate from 2013, Wesley (M1051). You can read more about Ernesta and Wesley here.
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Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service - Dark Canyon Pack, August 2014