The Mule Pack, so named for their mode of transportation into the heart of the Gila Wilderness, set themselves free from their temporary nylon mesh holding pen on March 25, 2000. They were the first of their kind to roam free and beautify the Gila Wilderness with their presence and their howls in about 60 years. I was the one chosen to occupy a camp about a mile from the pen and monitor their release.
On the first day of my solo monitoring adventure, all was quiet and the signals from the wolves’ radio collars were coming from the direction of the release pen. I occupied most of the day destroying several fire rings that were marring the wilderness character around the nearby Lilley Park Spring. Water is scarce in the uplands of the Gila Wilderness and human camps near springs interfere with the animals’ access to these life-sustaining aquatic features. My goal was to restore the pristine beauty of the area and discourage future human camps near the spring. It was hard but satisfying work. By the end of the day I had removed all of the half dozen or so fire rings and restored the ground to its natural look—cleaning house for the new family about to move in.
That evening I was relaxing in camp after dinner as twilight was fading into darkness. It was quiet, very quiet, in my wilderness camp a dozen miles from the nearest road. Then, without warning a long, low wolf howl broke the silence and captured my immediate attention. They had chewed out and were out exploring their ancestral homelands near my camp. It was nearly dark but I peered hard into the surrounding Ponderosa pine woodlands and just caught a glimpse of the gray form of one of the lobos of the Mule Pack walking through the woods.
For a wildlife biologist who had just spent 10 solid years of my career trying to save this rare wolf from extinction, this was the payoff, a highlight of my professional career. I felt incredibly fortunate to be the first human to experience the presence of free-roaming lobos in the Gila Wilderness since not long after Aldo Leopold had his famous “green fire” experience in this wild country in the early 1900s. If only Aldo could have been here to experience this momentous event with me!
This incredible experience has given me a greater appreciation for what Aldo Leopold meant when he said “[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The rewilding of the Gila Wilderness with its majestic top predator is “right” for reasons that became abundantly clear to me after spending a week in their new wilderness home. Hearing their howls from my camp reminded me that the Gila would be quite a different and more ecologically complete place from now on.
Of course, the return of Mexican wolves to the Gila Wilderness would not have been possible without the long-term support of thousands of wolf recovery advocates. Your continued support remains critically important for the future of the Mexican gray wolf, but I strongly encourage you to enjoy the fruits of your advocacy. Take a hike in the Gila—Wolf Country once again!
In October 2004, I was camped alone in the home range of the Hawks Nest Pack of reintroduced Mexican wolves. A three inch snow had fallen overnight, covering the ground and weighing down the fly on my tent. When I awoke, a pinkish dawn light bathed the grassland and forest. Strange music drifted across the meadows from a ridge about a mile away—a chorus of minor arpeggios that sounded like neither coyotes nor lobos, but more like a choir of mourning doves on steroids.
As I tried to place the sound, an unmarked pickup truck with a radio antenna on top pulled up. The occupant, a slight fellow in jeans and a sweater, got out and hailed me with the words, “See any Mexican wolves?” He introduced himself as the local Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officer. Taking out his radio telemetry equipment, he quickly confirmed that we were listening to the Hawks Nest Pack alpha female, some pups, and lone wolf M795 (now the alpha male of the Paradise Pack), answering each other from their respective ridgetop locations
The law enforcement officer and I stood on the cold, snowy hill listening to the lupine conversation for over two hours, unable to break away from the magic of the moment. When we finally left, the animals were still conversing—whether about territorial boundary lines, pack gossip, or the peace and beauty of the morning, we’ll never know.
Over the past ten years I’ve seen twenty-five Mexican wolves in the wild, and heard a dozen more. The common thread in all those experiences is that you can’t will an encounter with wild lobos. The best you can do is study their locations and habits, look for tracks and scats, and then pitch your tent in a likely place. Make your bed, fix your supper, and sit quietly as the sun drops low over the horizon. If you are extremely lucky, the lobos will find you.
Last New Year’s weekend one lithe, long-legged member of the Luna Pack found us, just as the shadows lengthened across a snow-packed road in the Gila National Forest. My husband and I had finished putting the cooking gear away in our truck, when we looked down the road and saw an uncollared wolf gazing our way from a distance of 175 yards. She crossed the road and bounded off through the deep snow to the west. We soon heard several howls from the east and one from far off to the west. A few minutes later, the wolf reappeared, crossed to the east, and then back to the west, where she disappeared in the twilight. Twice more that night we heard counterpoint howls—once very close.
In the morning we found tangible evidence that our evening visitor was real. She had left her footprints in the snow along the road. As always when we find Mexican wolves in the wild, we felt deep gratitude that these beautiful animals, persecuted by our own kind until they nearly vanished from the earth, are home again.