Miles from the nearest rural outpost and far beyond the smatterings of broken-down cars that have been left to rust into the central New Mexico prairie is a narrow canyon at the edge of the Los Pinos Mountains.

This rugged stretch is ground zero for the federal government’s effort to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the wild in the Southwest.

Here, behind an elaborate maze of fencing and locked gates are nearly two dozen wolves, many of them waiting for a chance to be released. However, the odds are stacked against them. First there’s politics. Then comes a strict set of requirements for the right genetics and the right location.

“Every Mexican wolf has a chance to go into the wild. That’s the purpose of all the captive animals,” Susan Dicks, a biologist and veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said as she negotiated the rough two-track road leading up to the wolf pens.

“Sometimes, we’re all lined up for a release, and then politically, the stars don’t align,” she said. “That can be years of work.”

Dicks, along with a team of other biologists, volunteers and students, spent a day last week at the wolf management center at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Their mission was to capture four female wolves, vaccinate them and do a quick checkup.

The work is all in preparation for the day when more captive-bred animals can be released into the wild to bolster a population that has stumbled over the last decade because of court battles, illegal shootings, management hurdles and feuds between ranchers and environmentalists.

In the last five years, there have been more than a dozen transfers of wolves around the reintroduction area, which spans millions of forested acres in Arizona and New Mexico. But only once during that time have wildlife managers released a new wolf as part of the program. That was in 2008.

The lack of fresh genetics in the wild is what has supporters of the program worried.

A subspecies of the gray wolf, Mexican wolves were added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 after they were all but wiped out because of hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns.

The federal government started its reintroduction effort along the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1998 with the release of 11 wolves. Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by 2006, but the numbers continue to hover around 50.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to start its annual count next month. There’s some hope for improvement given the number of pups that were spotted with some of the packs earlier this year.

The latest blow to the program was a vote earlier this month by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission to not support the release of any new wolves until the federal government revamps its decades-old recovery plan for the species.

“The population just can’t make it without releases. It’s so small at this point, and it’s already suffering from inbreeding because of the low number of founders,” she said. “I think it’s pretty much without doubt that without new releases, the population will start on a downward trend again, and you can’t afford that when you’ve only got 50 animals.”

Tom Buckley, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the federal government has the authority to continue with releases but would prefer to have the support of Arizona.

Buckley and other federal officials acknowledged the emotion that has long fueled the debate about the wolf reintroduction. Environmentalists have pushed for more, while ranchers have felt their livelihoods threatened by the loss of cattle and some community leaders have voiced concerns about wolves getting too close to people.

“There’s a balance that has to be struck and it’s not easy,” Buckley said, noting that the middle road often leaves both sides angry.

Sargent said she believes the recovery plan, once finished, will be the key to helping the program find its way.

“You’ve got to know what the goal is,” she said. “And the ranchers will be happy to see that, too. Everybody wants to know: When do we get to the end game where there are plenty of wolves and we can treat them like other wildlife?”

Far from the offices in Washington, D.C., and the courtrooms where some of the decisions about the wolves’ fate have been made, Dicks and her crew are playing out a complicated dance of sorts around rocky outcroppings and juniper trees in order to corner female No. 1034.

The wolf wanted no part of it. She ran back and forth as the line of people advanced, trying to force her into one of the wooden den boxes inside the acre-sized pen.

She checked out both ends of the line. No way out.

She made a half-hearted leap at the towering fence to her right. Digging her way out wasn’t an option either. Another six feet of fence is buried to prevent that.

With a narrow gap on the right side, she tried to break for it. Not a chance. The biologists have done this too many times. Their nets had her on the ground within a second.

After untangling No. 1034, the crew slipped on a muzzle and blinders.

They worked fast to check her temperature, take a blood sample and vaccinate her for parvovirus, distemper and other diseases. They also weighed her and inspected her eyes, teeth and paws.

Dicks called out for the bottle of rubbing alcohol and poured it on the wolf’s paws to keep her cool.

The biologists handle the wolves only once a year, if that – the less contact, the better – and the ordeal can be stressful for the animals, causing them to overheat.

“It is hard,” she said. “I find myself every now and then wanting to say, ‘OK buddy, it’s OK,’ because it’s in our nature to try and comfort. But we’re not at all comforting to them, so the kindest and most humane thing we can do is do our work quickly and quietly and let them go.”

The wolf bolted after the team was done. After making it halfway up the hill, it looked back twice.

“If that wolf had a middle finger, we’d probably be seeing it right now,” Buckley said, getting the group to laugh.

Fostering the wolves’ fear of people and maintaining their wildness is actually a serious matter for the recovery team. So is trying to unlock the scientific mysteries that might help the wolf toward recovery, such as why the pup survival rate isn’t higher and how packs choose which wolves to accept and which to shun.

“It doesn’t come with a handbook,” Buckley said. “We can rely on things that have been done with other populations and research on other species, but these wolves have their own unique qualities and this area has its own unique characteristics. There have been things that we have had to learn as we go. Sometimes there are hard lessons and sometimes there are ‘ah-ha’ moments.”

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