A momentous event took place in the Julian backcountry on May 9 or 10. Six new members of the critically endangered Mexican wolf population were born on land occupied by the California Wolf Center.
In 1977, Mexican gray wolves had been hunted to fewer than 15 left in the United States, says Christina Souto, a wolf center spokeswoman. In the 40 years since, thanks to conservation efforts, the population in the wild has rebounded to 113 known wolves (all in Arizona and New Mexico), plus about 300 more in captivity.
The Julian miracle did not end at birth. On May 16, in a clandestine conservationist raid, two of the six newborn pups were removed at the request of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They were transported to Arizona where they were placed with a litter in a wild wolf pack den in the Panther Creek area. Two of the wild pups were removed and brought back to the Julian den.
The exchange, called cross-fostering, is an effort to increase genetic diversity and bolster the Mexican wolf’s resistance to disease.
The strategy works, Souto explains, because of the strong parenting instincts of wolves, known to adopt unrelated pups and raise them as their own.
Erin Hunt, the California Wolf Center operations director, described the exchange as a “historic first” for the California Wolf Center, which counts actor Leonardo DiCaprio among its supporters.
The Mexican wolf subspecies is slightly smaller than the gray wolf and has brown markings. Genetic variation is critical to the subspecies’ survival, so the wolf pup exchange marks a major step in ensuring a genetically diverse population for reintroduction into their natural habitat.
The California Wolf Center, located off Highway 79 between Lake Cuyamaca and Julian, conducts public tours by reservation, but visitors won’t see the new litter. They’ll be protected from human contact because operators hope that, one day, they will be released into the wild.
Photos courtesy of the California Wolf Center.