ALPINE — On a clear, frosty February day in eastern Arizona, ice hugs sidewalks and piles up in the shade of pine trees, steep slopes and buildings. Snowdrifts from a recent storm paint the nearby slopes glittering white in the bright sunlight, the promise of a warmer day ahead.
But while the temperature is just 36 degrees, the timing is right for the annual count of the endangered Mexican gray wolf across east-central Arizona and western New Mexico. The process usually stretches from November to the beginning of February.
For the past three months, biologists and technicians have roamed the region enumerating wolves and their packs in the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila national forests. They’re members of the Interagency Field Team, a consortium of federal, tribal and state agencies charged with ensuring the recovery of one of the country's most imperiled wolf species.
On this day, a group of nearly 20 biologists, technicians, managers and volunteers were gathering for the next step in the count, to survey at least one member of each Mexican gray wolf pack in Arizona and New Mexico and collar wolves that were previously not collared.
The annual count is critical in the ongoing effort to rebuild the population of wolves on a landscape where the predator was once all but eradicated.
The government tracks the progress of the wolves' recovery using the wild population, which has increased an average of 12% since 2009. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2017 recovery plan says that one goal for taking the wolf off the endangered species list is demonstrating an average of 320 wolves over an 8-year period. The 2018 count showed that the wild wolf population grew to 131 from 117, with 64 of them roaming Arizona.
Locating and collaring previously uncontacted wolves supports another key goal of the recovery plan: widening the packs' genetic pool. Each "new" wolf has a DNA sample taken. The results become part of the "studbook," a listing of every known wolf, living and dead, in the recovery program.
Because the entire population of wolves, both in the wild and in captivity, is descended from just seven canids, increasing genetic diversity is vital to their long-term viability.
Waiting for a captured wolf
Joseph Perez, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, is suited up and ready to board the red helicopter that searches out wolves for temporary capture. Some of them need batteries for existing radio collars. Some appear to be injured. Still others are picked to be brought in and be fitted with a collar and given a medical exam.
Perez’s job is to shoot the chosen wolf with a dart containing Telazol, a veterinary tranquilizer. He manages it in just two shots, testament to his time as a U.S. Army expert rifleman.
“I think he’s got a future as a darter,” said Chris Bagnoli, a regional supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Paul Greer, the leader of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team and an official at Arizona Game and Fish, gives directions to the four-person crew, and the chopper flies off in search of a candidate.
About 30 minutes later, the crew radios that its bringing in a wolf. Ground personnel hustle up to the helipad to bring what turns out to be a male down to an exam room set up in a Forest Service trailer. He was the 10th wolf to be captured during the count, and the eighth without a collar. The other two needed fresh collars.
Inside, the white, brown and black wolf is weighed. He's a substantial 54 pounds. He's about 4 feet in length, with paws nearly as wide as a woman's hand.
After the weigh-in, four team members gently lift the wolf onto a cloth laid on the table, which doubles as a conference table when not being used for canid exams.
The wolf’s head is covered with a mask to prevent stress. His temperature is taken every five minutes to ensure he maintains a safe body temperature of 99 to 104 degrees. An IV is inserted into a vein to keep him hydrated and cool. An Army sleeping bag on the floor of the exam room is ready to warm the wolf if he gets too cold.
Taking blood and measurements
Susan Dicks of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one of two veterinarians on the team. She directs a biologist to spray alcohol on the wolf’s foot pads, since his temperature is 103.5 degrees. The alcohol helps cool the wolf to a safer temperature, said fellow vet Ole Alcumbrac, a private practitioner who works with the team on wolf assessments.
As the biologists and vets perform blood tests, administer vaccines and take measurements to determine the wolf’s health, the radio squawks in the background with the voices of helicopter crew members and ground workers.
During the procedure, a biologist files the collar clamp smooth after it is attached to the wolf. The file rasps across the rough metal.
“Dr. Ole,” as he’s known in the White Mountains, takes measurements while Dicks performs other tests, their separate tasks designed to help keep exams to less than an hour.
“You want to take teeth measurements while I’m in his mouth? I’ll hold the guide for you,” said Alcumbrac to one of the biologists.
One of the team inserts a metal appliance into the wolf's mouth to keep it open. The device also helps prevent oral tissue injury as the canid’s teeth and mouth are examined.
The male’s teeth, combined with the presence of pup hair, small testicles and other signs,help the vets mark the wolf as a pup, age 1. He’s assigned the number MP1858 for inclusion in the studbook. M stands for male, P for pup. The P will drop off once he reaches adulthood at age 2.
The exam done, the wolf is pronounced healthy, and because he’s stable, team members take a moment to pose for selfies with the still-tranquilized pup.
Pictures taken, it’s time to load MP1858 into a crate for the last leg of his journey back to the wild.
Returning the wolf to the wild
Greer noted that the pup had recently separated from another pack and was traveling with a young female collared wolf, studbook number F1686. Genetic analysis will determine which pack he came from.
Greer said that MP1911, a pup that had been cross-fostered into the Frieborn Pack in New Mexico, was also captured, collared and released during this count. Out of 32 pups cross-fostered since 2014, Greer said a minimum of nine are known to be alive. And, he said, all 10 of the wolves brought in this year, including the cross-fostered one, are in good health.
Perez, the wolf technician with the White Mountain tribe’s game and fish department, is modest but proud of his accomplishment, since up to 20 darts can be shot at just one wolf. Perez’s duties involve monitoring the reservation’s four packs, but this was his first time to dart wolves.
“It’s different shooting hanging out a helicopter,” Perez said.
“The folks that are making this operation happen are very skilled; lots of training goes into these positions,” said Greer. “In a sense, it’s like being a coach and letting these athletes perform.”