The Elk Horn Pack: Yearling pups go hunting
by Jean Ossorio
On April 23, 2016, Elk Horn AF1294 gave birth to five tiny, blind, deaf Mexican gray wolf puppies in her den in eastern Arizona. The pups, about the size of a baked potato, depended on their mother for everything: food, warmth, cleanliness, and protection from the elements. Although a litter of five puppies is about average for lobos, this little family was destined to get even larger in a couple of days.
Mexican wolf puppy about ten weeks old.
Photo courtesy of the Wolf Conservation Center.
On April 25th, a mother Mexican wolf at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo
also gave birth to five puppies. Two of those puppies were removed from her den and transported to Arizona, where they were placed into the Elk Horn den on April 30 in a process called cross-fostering.
Once the cross-fostered pups were placed in the Elk Horn den, their wild foster mother took care of them, just as she did her own pups. Mexican wolf field team members left the little family alone, to allow the pups to be raised like other wild lobo puppies.
They did provide a food cache, usually part of a road-killed elk or deer, to help the parents provide for the extra mouths to feed. A remote camera focused on the cache allows the field team to tell what animals are actually using it.
Food cache showing remote camera.
The tiny puppies grew rapidly. By about 12 to 14 days after their birth, their eyes opened. Over the next few weeks, they gained more control over their movements. Soon they were able to follow adults for short distances. They began eating solid food, most of which was provided by their father, AM1342, who brought home the fruits of his hunting expeditions in his stomach and regurgitated them for his growing offspring to eat. Little wolves apparently think regurgitated food is yummy!
Wolf pups have a lot to learn before they are ready to strike out on their own, sometimes before they reach the age of two years. They learn important survival skills by playing with each other. They chase each other, pounce on their littermates, wrestle, and play with objects like bones, feathers, and pieces of fur from animals brought back to the den area by their parents. Activities like these help hone muscles and sharpen senses that help them learn to chase and kill prey like elk and deer as they get older and begin to hunt with the rest of the pack.
Mexican wolves may begin to disperse, or move away from the pack of their birth, as early as ten months of age, but most seem to stay with the pack for at least a year. The Elk Horn 2016 pups were no exception. Two of the male pups, mp1471 and mp1474, were caught and fitted with radio telemetry collars in October. A female pup, fp1473, was collared in early 2017.
Mp1471, one of the pups from the Brookfield Zoo, had already been given the name Blaze, while still at the zoo. Mexicanwolves.org chose names for the other two collared pups from a list of names selected by children in our 2016 pup naming contest. Mp1474 was named River, a name submitted by Sophie B. Another winner, Dajanae K., chose her own name Dajanae, which was given to fp1473. You can see the stories and art work of all the pup naming contest winners for 2016, including Sophie and Dajanae, at this link:
By the time the 2016 Elk Horn pups reached the age of one year, in late April 2017, they had learned much of what they needed to know to survive in the wild. However, yearling wolves can still benefit from a little more practice as hunters while they remain with their original packs.
In late June 2017, my husband and I camped at a site with a good view of an open valley in the Elk Horn Pack home range. One morning as we sat drinking our breakfast coffee, we were excited to see three wolves slowly making their way up the valley. They stopped now and then and acted very playful, leading us to suspect that at least one or two of them were last year’s pups. They were a long distance away, but you can see them running along, side by side, through the grass in the meadow.
Three Elk Horn wolves playing in a meadow in eastern Arizona.
A few days later, we were again drinking our mugs of coffee when we noticed several wolves coming down a side drainage into the valley, where a few elk were grazing. The wolves looked toward the elk, which stopped grazing and appeared to notice the wolves. Some of them left the valley, but two large cow elk moved toward the wolves. The elk and wolves stared at each for a while, with the wolves in a sort of T-formation. The wolves moved slowly toward the elk, but did not actually give chase when the elk moved into the woods.
Then all five wolves lay down in the green grass in the middle of the valley and just rested for at least an hour, occasionally getting up and changing their positions in the pack. We just sat and waited, eating a snack and wondering what they would do next.
Five Elk Horn Pack wolves lounging in the grass. The distance to these wolves was about one kilometer (about .6 miles).
As we were about to give up and start packing our gear for our trip home, an elk calf came down the hill into the valley, followed by its mother. One by one, the wolves stood up and peered up the hill at the pair, watching as they came. Suddenly, the calf took off running down the hill, right toward the five wolves waiting at the bottom. Mother elk dashed after her baby. We have no idea what made the little elk run toward the pack, but the wolves were ready.
They formed another line, with one wolf in back—the same sort of T-formation they had made earlier. This time they chased after the mother elk and her baby, who ran as fast as they could up the hill and into the woods on the opposite side of the valley. Another cow elk that had started running after mom and baby turned off as the pack chased after the pair. We waited to find out what happened next.
Five Elk Horn wolves chasing mother elk and calf, with a second cow elk behind the calf. Distance to the pair was about one kilometer, or about .6 miles.
We didn’t have to wait long. Within a total of seven minutes, all five wolves returned to the valley, walking slowly and looking tired after their sprint through the forest. They came back with nothing to show for their efforts. This is not unusual. Most chases end in failure to kill the prey. The life of wild Mexican wolves isn’t an easy one.
Most of the wolves settled down in the meadow to rest, but one came slowly down the valley, stopping to cool off in some open water. Chasing elk makes you hot!
Elk Horn wolf taking a dip in standing water.
We had time to take several photos before he climbed the hill opposite our camp and disappeared into the forest.
Elk Horn wolf showing dark box on its radio collar.
We soon had to pack up our camp and head for home, still marveling over our brief peek into the lives of the Elk Horn pups and their parents.
Caution: We urge everybody who camps where wild animals may be present to keep a clean camp. This includes almost anywhere in our national or state parks, national forests, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Store food in vehicles or hard-sided campers. If you backpack and don’t have an approved bear-proof canister, be sure to keep food in a “bear bag,” hung properly in a tree. If you don’t know how to do this, please learn before you go. Here are links to two excellent articles on proper food storage for campers and backpackers.
Let’s keep our wolves and bears wild! A fed wolf or bear may soon be a dead one.
All photos by Jean Ossorio except where otherwise noted.