About a dozen Fish and Wildlife Service personnel and volunteers stepped forward in a slow-motion line dance, quietly advancing toward a male Mexican wolf.
The group convened before dawn to partake in the first major release of Mexican wolves into the wild in almost five years, as FWS wolf biologist Maggie Dwire softly called out the moves: "OK, let's go 10 steps forward."
Carrying nets and y-sticks in case he bolted, the capture team soon had the wolf, dubbed M1051, cornered in the back of the large pen, where he darted into a doghouse-size wooden "den box." After quieting him with a blue cloth muzzle that covered his eyes and part of his mouth, three members of the team lifted him from the box onto a green nylon mat, where veterinarian Susan Dicks gave him shots for rabies, distemper and parvovirus and put him in a large plastic carrier.
The line dance began again at the other side of the pen, this time targeting his pregnant mate, F1126. Later in the day, side by side in the back of a government truck, the pair was driven four hours west to a release site in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. By dusk, they were roaming their new soccer-field-sized pen, about 10 feet tall and enclosed by a chain-link fence, which will be dismantled in about a month, after their pups are born and the family acclimates to the area.
"This is pretty exciting," said Sherry Barrett, FWS's Mexican wolf coordinator, surveying the release site yesterday just before workers unlatched the crates and the wolves bolted to the other side of their new pen beneath spruce-fir trees blackened by 2011's Wallow fire.
Another pair of wolves, M1133 and F1108, which are also about to have pups, are scheduled to be captured today and released into New Mexico's portion of the recovery zone within Gila National Forest tomorrow.
Together, the back-to-back releases mark a major milestone in the 15-year-old program to return Mexican wolves to their native habitat. Exterminated from the Southwest by the early 1900s, the Mexican gray wolf -- the smaller, reddish-brown cousin of the gray wolf found in the Northern Rockies -- began its slow comeback in 1998, after FWS and its partners reintroduced 11 animals in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
The releases -- the culmination of almost a year of planning -- will inject new genes into the still-struggling Mexican wolf population and help expand the population. After all four wolves are set free, the wild population will number 77 wolves, and the number of breeding pairs will increase from three to five.
When the pups of the two pairs are born in the coming weeks, the population will expand further. While it's uncertain how many of the pups will survive, it's likely some of them will, officials said.
Although FWS has not established an official numeric recovery goal, federal biologists had set an informal goal of 100 wolves in the wild when Mexican wolves were first reintroduced to the Southwest in 1998. Biologists are now working on a new recovery plan for the wolf that is likely to lay out a new population target.
The official annual count in January was 75 wolves, with three breeding pairs, but two wolves were killed earlier this year.
'Not trained to kill'
Since the first wolves were reintroduced 15 years ago, releases into the wild have been few and far between, and some of those have failed. M1133 was initially released by himself in January, for instance, but had to be captured three weeks later after his intended mate chose another male instead, and he ended up in unoccupied territory where there were no other wolves to pair with (Greenwire, Feb. 5).
M1133 will have another chance at freedom when he and his new mate are released into the Gila Wilderness this weekend.
But ranchers and other residents aren't so happy about their new neighbors. The female placed in the release pen in Arizona yesterday has no prior experience in the wild, and Barbara Marks, who owns a beef cattle ranch with her husband in the nearby Alpine area, said she's worried the wolves won't confine their diet to just elk.
"Ever since the beginning, every time naive wolves are released, they don't have the experience to do what they're supposed to," she said. "They're not trained to kill anything, and they're hand-fed by humans."
But federal and state wildlife officials said they've learned a thing or two since the first wolf releases, and precautions have been taken to help ensure that M1133 and his newly freed brethren will thrive in the wild. Biologists chose sites that had good habitat and abundant elk -- Mexican wolves' favorite meal -- and are remote enough to reduce the likelihood of wolf-livestock conflicts, said FWS's Elizabeth Jozwiak, field projects coordinator for the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team, which includes the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Forest Service and other entities.
The wolves will have a chance to acclimate to their new surroundings before the fence is taken down. And because the released wolves are mated pairs about to whelp, they're likely to stay put in the area and raise their pups there, she said.
"We're very hopeful," said Kathy Taylor, the Forest Service's liaison for the Mexican wolf project. "There's a lot of elk here, so we're pretty confident they'll hunt elk as soon as they leave the pen." The new green shoots sprouting up in the aftermath of the Wallow fire provide excellent forage for elk, which in turn provide excellent sustenance for wolves, she noted.
The wolves have also developed an aversion to the taste of cattle: While in captivity at Sevilleta NWR, they were fed a type of treated cowhide that induced nausea, Jozwiak said.
"Hopefully, they won't have a taste for livestock," she said.
While humans will feed the wolves elk carcasses -- mostly roadkill -- while they're in the release pens for the first few weeks, they'll enter from an area where the fence is covered with green screening so that they're not visible approaching the pen.
"We want to minimize human disturbance as much as possible," Jozwiak said. "Based on our experience from the past, we're trying to do things differently and try to make these releases more successful."
The wolves released yesterday had been held at the wildlife refuge since October. The female, F1126, came from the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, and the male, M1051, was delivered from the Endangered Wolf Center near St. Louis.
One of the biggest reasons it's so crucial to release more wolves into the wild is because of a much-needed influx of new genes into the population. All of the 11 wolves released into the 6,850-square-mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in 1998 came from just three lineages. Fifteen years later, two of those lineages are underrepresented and one is overrepresented in the population, Dwire said. The four wolves released this week will help boost the two weaker lineages, especially when their pups grow up and reproduce, she said.
"We continue to be committed to strategic releases that improve genetic diversity, increase the number of breeding wolves, and offset illegal mortalities in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area," Benjamin Tuggle, FWS's Southwest regional director, said in a statement today. "This dual release is another step that helps us reach our goal of a self-sustaining wild wolf population."
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, a longtime watchdog of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program and a frequent critic of FWS's handling of it, praised the agency for releasing the four wolves.
"It's terrific news," he said in an email. But the interagency team that manages the Mexican wolf program should do more, he added.
"Given that, thus far, just one wolf from the captive-breeding pool has been released in almost 4.5 years, and he was captured three weeks later, and given the genetic emergency facing the Mexican wolf due to years of agency trapping and shooting, coupled with a paucity of releases, these two releases won't nearly suffice," he said. "We call on FWS to release many more wolves as quickly as possible."
About 10 wolves remain at the holding facility at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Several others live at zoos and wolf centers throughout the country.
But it remains to be seen whether the four wolves released into the wild this week successfully colonize their new home. The first wolf released in 1998 was shot by a landowner, and shooting of Mexican wolves continues to be a problem, officials noted.
"Of course, there's always threats to the program, mostly illegal mortality," Jozwiak said.
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