Stories of Two Wolf Packs in the Wild Gila Blue - Updated February 13, 2010
Hawks Nest Pack
Two adult Mexican wolves and their year-old pups roam the windswept grasslands and patchy forest of pine, spruce, and Douglas fir south of Springerville, Arizona. The adults are the latest alpha wolves to lead the Hawks Nest pack.
The Hawks Nest pack was established in 1998, when the original alpha male and his mate were among the first eleven lobos released from captivity. After his mate was shot to death by a poacher, the male was recaptured and re-released with another female. He was observed sick in 2000, captured and diagnosed with a brain tumor, and was euthanized—one of the few wolves to succumb to natural causes. Soon the female found a new mate, a young, dispersing lobo from the Cienega pack.
The pair remained together, hunting elk, breeding, defending a territory of more than 125 square miles, and avoiding conflicts with livestock until the end of 2007, when contact with the eleven year old alpha female was lost. Her fate is unknown, although she may have been deposed by another female found with the pack.
That young, wild-born female from the Bluestem pack was caught, fitted with a radio collar, and released. Her charms were apparently sufficient to lure a wild-born male, a disperser from the nearby Paradise pack, to overcome the natural reluctance of wolves to invade the territory of another pack. By early 2008 he had deposed the long time alpha male and taken over the role of alpha. The new alpha pair produced a litter of pups—the first to romp and frolic in Hawks Nest territory since at least 2004. The former alpha male continues to wander on the fringes of his old home range.
Update - September 2009
As of early September, six of seven pups born to the Hawk’s Nest pack in 2009 still survive. The pack has the good fortune to range across an area with rich grass, numerous tanks and springs, many elk, and relatively low cattle density, compared with the Middle Fork pack home range (See story below.). It is unlikely that all six pups will make it through the winter, but there is an excellent chance that at least two pups will survive until December 31, making Hawk’s Nest alpha male and female a breeding pair for the second year in a row.
Update - February 13, 2010
Project biologists conducting the 2009 end-of-year survey of the wild Mexican wolf population in mid-January found two pups with the Hawk’s Nest pack. This qualifies the pack as a "breeding pair" for 2009. In order to count as a breeding pair, a Mexican wolf pack must contain both an adult male and an adult female wolf who have produced two pups that survive until December 31. Only one other wild pack qualified as a breeding pair in 2009. This was the Paradise pack, which occupies a territory to the north and west of the home range of the Hawk's Nest pack in Arizona.
Middle Fork Pack
Bull Pass Canyon, Horse Camp Canyon, Trap Corral Canyon: place names in the home range of the Middle Fork pack of Mexican wolves evoke images of the old West, when cattlemen ruled the range like old world barons and public lands devoted to multiple use were still a distant dream. But other names—East Elk Mountain, Beaver Points, Wolf Hollow—speak to an older, wilder landscape roamed by the Middle Fork Pack.
The original southwestern subspecies of elk was shot into oblivion by 1906, but northern elk were reintroduced. The beaver are gone from Beaver Points, though found elsewhere in the Gila, and the wolves are back too, if only barely. Livestock owners in the area still practice hands-off management, although 95 percent of the land belongs to all Americans. Cows killed by accident, disease, and calving complications dot the grasslands—their carcasses enticing wolves to remain near cattle. The names of packs that have been removed for conflicts with livestock in this carcass strewn landscape read like a litany of prolific and genetically important packs: Saddle, Aspen, Durango.
The alpha female of the Middle Fork Pack was born in captivity to the recently recaptured Saddle alpha female in April 2004. Her father was shot by the government for livestock depredations on July 11, 2004, despite the fact that he hadn’t killed a cow in two months.
Of the five pups in that litter, released with their mother and a surrogate father in New Mexico in August 2004, only two are known to survive. The government shot the Middle Fork alpha female’s brother in May 2006. Another brother mated with the alpha female of the Aspen Pack, following the disappearance of her first mate in early 2007. He and his entire pack were removed from the wild for conflicts with cattle in late 2007. He now serves a life sentence behind bars. Two more littermates, both females, disappeared. They may still be roaming freely, or they may have fallen to poachers’ bullets.
Only the Middle Fork female is still being tracked in the wild. She and her wild-born mate met in the deep canyons of the Gila Wilderness sometime in early 2006. The Middle Fork adults now hunt elk and raise their pups in a minefield of rotting cattle carcasses. If scavenging on carcasses leads them to kill three cows in the course of a year, they will share the fate of their Saddle and Aspen forebears.
Early in 2009, the alpha male stepped into a trap, injuring his leg severely enough to require amputation. His mate had one of her front legs amputated due to an old injury in early 2008. Their injuries will make hunting elk, always difficult and dangerous, even more challenging. We'll continue to report on these three-legged lobos and their family as they struggle to survive in the wild.
Update - September 2009
Stock tanks are dry now and elk seem sparse, while cattle are still plentiful. At least 16 cattle carcasses (dead of causes other than wolf depredation) were counted in the area this summer, tempting the wolves to scavenge. In this landscape the three-legged alpha male and female of the Middle Fork pack began to kill livestock to feed their four rapidly growing pups. Citing the unique genetic value of the pack, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the support of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, has decided to allow the Middle Fork pack to remain in the wild until at least November 1 despite the depredations. Lobo supporters monitoring the situation hope that hazing efforts will discourage the Middle Fork wolves from killing additional livestock.
Update - February 13, 2010
Although the Middle Fork pack was documented with four pups at the end of October 2009, by the time of the end-of-year survey, project personnel could locate only a single living pup with the two three-legged alpha animals. Because a pack must successfully rear at least two pups until the end of the year in order to qualify as a breeding pair, Middle Fork is not considered a breeding pair for 2009. Pup survival overall was lower than the average of about 50% in 2009. Only seven out of a total of 31 pups born during the spring lived until the end of the year. Biologists will be working hard to determine the causes of these unusually heavy pup losses.