She may have not been born free, but Ernesta, a 4-year-old Mexican gray wolf from Brookfield Zoo, might be able to live out the rest of her life roaming the wilds of New Mexico.
Ernesta was transferred from the west suburban zoo to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro, N.M., on Oct. 27 and is now attending "wolf boot camp" with two other male wolves that arrived when she did. The goal is to prepare them for release into the wild as part of an effort to increase the wolf population in the area.
"She is doing well (in her enclosure) and is adapting with the other wolves," said Maggie Dwire, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "She doesn't like to be around people, but that is a good quality for a wolf in the recovery program."
There are only 58 Mexican gray wolves living in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, but there are 283 living at 52 zoos and other institutions across the United States. Most of the wolves in the wild are second- and third-generation animals that are descendants of wolves that were released from the Sevilleta facility, according to Tom Buckley, public affairs specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Mexican gray wolf population in the Southwest had been dwindling throughout the 20th century as human settlement and hunting intensified across in the area. The Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the species as endangered in 1976. The Mexican gray wolf is the southernmost-living, rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America.
Dwire said Ernesta and the two male wolves are being kept in a large fenced-in area that mimics the high desert landscape that surrounds it. There are about a dozen wolves at Sevilleta.
"The goal for her is to accept one of the males as her mate," Dwire said. "If she gets pregnant, she may be released with her mate in spring, but we might also decide to wait until late summer. There are a lot of factors that must be taken into account."
Dwire said Ernesta and her mate would stake out a territory of their own in the spring to raise their pups. Late summer, however, is also a good time for Ernesta and her mate to be released because it's calving season for elk, a main food source for the wolves, wildlife officials said.
"The idea is to get them to adapt to the environment without people," Dwire said.
Ernesta was born in 2008 at a wolf facility in Missouri and came with her three brothers and four sisters to Brookfield Zoo in 2010. Amy Roberts, mammal curator at Brookfield, said Ernesta was a good candidate for release because she is a confident wolf and one who doesn't care for people.
"We observed her for years and after lengthy discussion decided to give her a chance," Roberts said.
Roberts said Ernesta spent her last night at the zoo with several of her siblings in a confined area to keep her comfortable. In the morning, she was put into a crate and transported to a waiting aircraft at Clow International Airport in Bolingbrook.
The LightHawk airplane organization, which uses volunteer pilots for environmental objectives, then loaded the crate onto the aircraft before heading to Missouri to pick up the two male wolves. The flight then continued on to New Mexico.
Dwire said the wolf facility doesn't focus much on training wolves to hunt for prey.
"Hunting is part of their DNA. so they usually catch on fast," Dwire said. "It can actually be very dangerous to put a panicking deer or elk in an enclosure because they could hurt the wolves."
She said the wolves eat elk, deer and smaller animals such as rabbits. The facility is now feeding the wolves with roadkill, but Dwire said they also try to teach the wolves not to eat cattle.
"We do something called conditioned taste aversion," Dwire said. "We give them beef but put a chemical in it to make them feel a little sick. In turn, they don't want to eat beef, and they begin to hate the stuff."
Roberts said it's exciting that wolves are living in the Southwest again.
"They are a benefit to the overall ecosystem there," Roberts said. "Wolves keep the population of grazing animals down, which can help create a more diverse and healthy landscape. I also think they are a symbol of wildness."
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It has been over four years since the US Fish and Wildlife Service released a new Mexican wolf into the wild. Recently, the agency finally put out a proposal to release more wolves, and a beautiful female wolf named Ernesta has been moved from Brookfield Zoo in Chicago to the pre-release facility at Sevilleta. While we're pleased that Ernesta and other wolves are being prepared to live in the wild where they belong, the release proposal has some serious issues, including management rules that says the USFWS will kill or remove the new wolves if they get into trouble three times in a year.
Click here to learn more about the Release Proposal and write to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to tell them to release wolves in the right way, with rules that will truly promote the recovery of the Mexican wolf wild population.