The Missing Wolves
by Paula Nixon
Wolves had been absent from the Southwest for decades when I moved to New Mexico in 1997. I had never heard of the Mexican gray wolf but, like its counterpart in Yellowstone, it had been shot, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction. Before I had finished unpacking I began to hear about plans to reintroduce a small population of the lobos, as they are known in Spanish, into their historical habitat. I ignored the story.
Environmentalists cheered and ranchers protested when the first wolves were released into the Blue Range wilderness in Arizona near the New Mexico border in March 1998. I didn’t consciously follow the story, but as the months went on it was hard not to hear the latest news: camper shoots wolf; New Mexico governor opposes wolf program; office of animal rights group is target of gunfire. I tried to tune it out.
Things calmed down after the first two or three years of the initial reintroduction. Lawsuits were filed by both sides and wolves were still being shot, but some of them began to thrive, learning to hunt deer and elk, whelping and raising litters in the wild. Maybe they did have a chance at success, but I didn’t want to watch too closely.
More years passed and, by the end of 2009, there were four packs living in Arizona and five in New Mexico, with a total of 42 known wolves, far below the original goal of 100. On a trip to Albuquerque, I stopped by the zoo to get a look at a lobo.
The Albuquerque BioPark participates in the breeding program that established a population of Mexican gray wolves for reintroduction. On the day I visited sparrows flitted around the branches of a large cottonwood in the wolf habitat which is situated below the viewing area. I could hear a dog barking in the distance. Most of the other visitors spent a few seconds looking for the wolves and then moved on. It took me a few minutes to spot them on the opposite side of the enclosure, lounging on top of their den. Too far away to get a good look, I continued to watch and wait.
My patience paid off. One of the wolves got up to patrol his territory and trotted around the perimeter passing a few feet below where I was standing. He was smaller than I imagined with long legs; a thick, multi-colored coat; and a distinctive masked face. Signs next to the viewing area provided a brief overview of the history of the lobo and recommended books and websites for more information.
I started with David E Brown’s The Wolf in the Southwest, which exhaustively details the extirpation of the wolves; I moved on to the more hopeful The Return of the Mexican Gray Wolf by Bobbie Holaday, which lays out the long road to reintroduction and the role private citizens played in making it happen. I searched the internet for all of the news that I had missed, and downloaded and studied government reports: the recovery plan, the environmental impact study and annual progress reports.
The Bluestem Pack
Every month, US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) publishes a project update detailing the status of each of the packs. Most of the wolves wear radio telemetry collars, and weekly monitoring flights track their whereabouts. Even though there were less than 50 wolves when I started reading the monthly updates in 2010, it was hard to keep all of them straight. I needed one pack to follow, and I found it when I discovered Female (F) 521. By the time I started to read about her, she was 13 years old and was running along the border of Arizona and New Mexico.
Going back through years of monthly and annual reports, I was able to piece together the history of the female wolf and her pack. Della Garelle, the director of conservation at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs; Susan Dicks, a wildlife biologist with FWS in Albuquerque; and Adriane Ragan, public affairs officer with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Springerville, Ariz., answered my questions and helped me fill in the blanks.
F521 was born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in 1997, in the newly constructed habitat called Wolf Woods. Zookeepers named her Estrella, which means star in Spanish, and Garelle told me the pups were a hit with visitors. In 1999, Estrella was selected for the reintroduction program and was moved to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in western New Mexico.
At Sevilleta, wolves have minimal contact with humans; no visitors are allowed. Estrella was identified only by the stud book number assigned to her at birth, F521. She was paired with the male wolf M507, and they lived together in a large fenced enclosure. In the spring of 2000, they had their first litter of pups. Dicks described how biologists and other staff use binoculars and scopes to observe wolves from a blind on a hill to determine how well they bond, raise their pups and interact with the pack, trying to determine which ones are the best candidates for reintroduction. The wolves eat a specially formulated diet that is supplemented with deer and elk roadkill when it is available.
After the pair had their second litter of pups in 2002, they were selected for release. In June, the alpha pair—along with two of the offspring from their first litter and the five new pups—were given physical exams, outfitted with radio collars (except for the new pups) and trucked to a remote mountain meadow in the ASNF.
Placed in a mesh pen, the newly dubbed Bluestem Pack chewed their way out the same day. The staff monitoring the newly released pack must have watched and waited with bated breath. For all they had learned about this family of wolves at Sevilleta, there was no way to know how they would react once released. Would they stay together? Would the adults be able to feed and protect the young? Would they learn to hunt deer and elk, or would they be tempted to chase cows? As a precaution, they provided supplemental food.
The Bluestem Pack got off to a rocky start when they killed a blue heeler and two cows and had to be hazed away from a ranch. But by September, the pups were spotted snoozing on a boulder above a wolf-killed elk. At year’s end, seven of the original nine pack members survived in the wild.
The next spring, F521 gave birth to her first litter of wild-conceived and wild-born pups. The pack established a territory near the Black River close to the border of the ASNF and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. They hunted elk and stayed away from cows. The next two years were much the same, with new litters each spring. Not all of the pups survived, and some dispersed, joining other packs or forming new ones.
M507 was found dead in June 2006. The pups of the year were a few weeks old, but were probably weaned. With the help of her older offspring, F521 managed to raise the pups. By the end of the year, she had a new mate: M806.
The new alpha pair had pups in 2007, but F521 was 10 years old, and it would be her last litter. She stayed with the pack through 2008 and, for the first time in six years, they killed a cow. Sometime in 2009, F521 dispersed from the Bluestem Pack. F1042, one of her offspring from a litter with her original mate, replaced her as the alpha female.
F521 sometimes traveled by herself and other times with the Fox Mountain wolves—probably as a companion pack, according to Dicks. Garelle was planning a trip to New Mexico late in 2010 to try to get a look at F521 when she got word that the old wolf had been shot. Skinny and not as fast on her feet as she used to be, F521 might have been mistaken for a coyote, but we will probably never know for sure.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the forest, M806 and F1042 were showing their newest offspring, F521’s grand-pups, how to chase down elk.
A Trip to Wolf Country
In mid-September, I took a trip to the White Mountains of Arizona. Although the monsoons had come through with less than normal rainfall, wildflowers were in full bloom. Lemonweed and ragweed bahia formed a red and yellow carpet around burned-out stands of pine trees. The 2011 Wallow fire had hit the area hard, and the Bluestem Pack’s denning area had been directly impacted. They survived with the help of a food cache provided by the wolf recovery team. At the end of 2011, the pack had four known members: the alpha pair and two pups.
In July, M806 was found dead in the Bluestem Pack’s traditional territory. His death is under investigation by law enforcement. F1042 continues to travel and take care of five pups born in the spring. In the days before my trip, the pack was reported to be nine miles east of Big Lake in the ASNF.
It was sunny and warm the day I visited Big Lake, with just a few fisherman and campers around. Yellow-tinged leaves on aspen trees shivered in a light breeze. The fire-risk dial was pointed at low, but other signs warned of danger in the burned forest in windy or rainy conditions. Huge ponderosa pines and Douglas firs seemed unscathed by the fire and, at 400 or 500 years of age, they would have been standing when wolves originally roamed the area.
Back at the lodge in Greer it was a dark, moonless night. The temperature dropped to the mid-30s; I slept under a blanket with the window open, hoping to hear elk bugling or wolves howling. It was quiet all night, but I liked knowing that out there, somewhere, the wolves were running.
Near the end of Brown’s book, he asks “Cannot we, who find our challenges in the frontier outdoors, afford a few wolves…? “
I hope so.
Paula Nixon lives in Santa Fe with her husband and two cats and loves exploring the Southwest. She finds writing to be the best way to understand life as well as being a great excuse to ask questions. She is honored to be among the winners of the Santa Fe Reporter’s 2012 writing contest.
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