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By Trudy Balcom
Photo The wolf’s luxurious winter coat — a mixture of silver, brown and cream — ruffled slightly in the icy, gritty breeze kicked up by the helicopter rotors.
He didn’t notice. The Mexican gray wolf known as AM1249 was completely relaxed — tranquilized, the orange head of the dart that drugged him still hanging from a furry hind leg.
Mexican Wolf Release
A mexican wolf emerges from it’s containment after being captured, treated and tested by U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. Cyrenea Piper of Vernon, a biolgist for Fish and Wildlife and the youngest biologist from the Springerville office, performed the release. The wolf was the Alpha from the Diamond Pack in Apache County.
Sherry Barrett, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Mexican gray wolf Recovery Program, carried his limp, heavy body from the helicopter to the tailgate of a waiting nearby truck that had been set up as an outdoor field clinic on the tarmac of the Springerville Airport.
His “name” — AM1249 — stands for alpha male; 1249 is his studbook number. All Mexican gray wolves are assigned a studbook number, whether they live in the wild or in captivity. As the alpha male of the Diamond Pack, this wolf is part of that pack’s only breeding pair, making him a critically important link in the survival of his species.
The darting and capture of AM1249 was part of the annual census of the wild Mexican gray wolf populations in Arizona and New Mexico. Members of the Interagency Mexican Wolf Field Team representing five agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, USFWS, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services, Arizona Game and Fish and the White Mountain Apache Tribe — come together along with an attending veterinarian and flight crews to get an accurate estimate of how many wolves have survived the past year in the approximately 20 packs that live in the two states.
The census is conducted from November to February of each year, the time when the surviving pups born in spring have become young adults old enough to begin to venture away from their parents and seek out a new pack, and possibly a new mate.
Members of the IFT begin on the ground, documenting the numbers of wolves in each pack with visual counts and track counts.
“We try to get a look at all collared wolves before the actual helicopter count to better prepare us for scheduling our priority packs for capture. All collared wolves are flown (over) during the count to ensure we are thoroughly counting the population,” said Paul Greer, Mexican wolf IFT leader for Arizona Game and Fish.
The portion of the population count conducted from the air takes about 10 days and involves flights of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters over areas where wolves are known to be present in the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Area that primarily includes the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona, and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The count costs about $100,000 annually to complete.
At the Springerville Airport, the biologists of the Mexican Gray Wolf Interagency Field Team (IFT) sprang into action, making AM1249 as safe and comfortable for his exam as they could. After weighing him, they laid him on a clean, army-green sleeping bag. The location of the improvised clinic — outdoors on a morning when temperatures started out below 20 degrees — would help to cool the wolf, hot from his racing helicopter chase.
The biologists monitored the wolf’s temperature and gave him IV fluids to keep him hydrated and help him recover from the tranquilizer. They vaccinated him against rabies, distemper, parvo and other common canine illnesses. They measured the length of his teeth and the size of his paws, even the size of his testicles.
They also removed his electronic collar, which was defunct, and fitted him with a new GPS-enabled collar.
“The number-one goal of [capture] is to provide that animal with a working collar,” Greer explained. “Having that ability puts us in a much better position to monitor and be a good manager,” he said. The goal of wolf managers is to collar every breeding pair.
Although the tranquilizer dart had caused some minor bleeding, the biologists agreed that AM1249 looked the picture of health.
“He’s in great shape for an adult male wolf this time of year. He has a nice layer of body fat, he’s over 80 pounds, which is very large for a Mexican gray wolf,” said Janess Vartanian, a biologist and lead processor on the wolf count team working at Springerville last week.
AM1249 was first captured and collared in 2011 as an adult two-years old or older. He started off in one of the most northeasterly located packs in New Mexico, the San Mateo Pack near the San Mateo mountains. He migrated west in search of a mate and ended up as the alpha male of the Diamond Pack, one of the most northwesterly packs in Arizona. AM1249 traveled a distance of at least 120 miles. He has since produced at least three litters of pups.
AM1249 has been captured, collared and released five times. Radio and GPS-enabled collars like the one worn by AM1249 provide critical data for monitoring and managing the Mexican gray wolf population.
According to John Oakleaf of USFWS, and assistant operations leader for the wolf count, radio (VHF) collars and, particularly GPS collars, provide information about the collared wolf’s survival and mortality, reproduction, den locations and even interactions with cattle. The collars can be programmed to provide different amounts of information. Standard programming for GPS-enabled collars sends data on the wolf’s location four times per day, and lasts three to five years.
The annual wolf count and collaring provides critical data for the coming year’s management activities and the overall success of the wolf reintroduction effort.
“The annual count and capture is used to measure how well the reintroduction is progressing, where wolves are located and information to manage the breeding season,” Greer said.
At the start of this year’s count, the IFT believed that there were a minimum of 97 wild Mexican wolves in the reintroduction area. Mexican wolf populations have grown gradually since the initial release of 11 captive-bred wolves in 1998 into the Blue Range Recovery Area.
“We broke 100 for the first time in 2014, that’s when we hit 110. At that point the population was about 50 in 2010. The next year (2015), it went down to 97. We’ll see what the population is now following this count,” said Barrett.
Stepping back from the brink: From seven to 400
The Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf, the species that was once common across the northern U.S. The Mexican gray wolf, the grey wolf’s southwestern cousin, numbered about 4,000 or more before 1890 across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, with at least an equally-sized population in Mexico. With the settlement of the southwestern states by Euro-Americans, the elk and mule deer populations the wolves fed on were radically reduced, and ranchers and settlers sought to eliminate predators such as wolves, coyotes, bears and mountain lions that preyed on their livestock, in part, due to the loss of their natural food sources.
According to information from the USFWS, from 1915-1925, the U.S. Biological Survey conducted a predator eradication effort that killed at least 900 Mexican wolves during that period; state and private bounty hunters, poisoning and trapping killed more wolves.
By the 1940s, there were no breeding pairs of Mexican wolves left in the U.S., and only a handful in Mexico. The last three Mexican wolves were killed in the U.S. in 1970.
In 1973, Congress adopted the Endangered Species Act, and in 1976 the Mexican wolf was listed. Only seven surviving wolves existed at that time. Ironically, the U.S. Biological Survey, the agency tasked with eradicating the wolves, became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for carrying out species conservation under the Endangered Species Act.
From 1976 to 1997, Mexican wolves were bred in captivity to build their numbers back up in preparation for release into the wild. Currently, there are about 400 total Mexican wolves; about 300 of which are held in captivity in 55 different facilities across the U.S and Mexico.
Barrett sees the numbers as a record of accomplishment.
“I think it’s been successful. The population of Mexican wolves almost went extinct. If you figure that we started with seven wolves and then we grew a captive population of 240 to 300 animals,” Barrett said. “And from that, we took captive wolves and put them back in the wild. So it actually has been successful to grow from those seven animals to that captive population, to now — 100 wolves in the wild.”
Fostering a more diverse gene pool
Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is problematic in terms of genetics.
“From seven animals you have a reduced genetic diversity to begin with. So we won’t get … we won’t increase genetic diversity unless we magically find a new animal, which we won’t,” Barrett said.
The captive breeding operation carefully works toward increasing genetic diversity, Barrett explained, and decreasing family-relatedness. But with so few mates to choose from, wild wolves will inbreed, if necessary, with the result that wild wolves are less genetically diverse than captive-bred wolves.
In the past, wolf biologists have introduced new wolves from captivity to help diversify the wild wolf gene pool. But Greer said that Arizona Game and Fish does not allow the release of captive wolves any longer, due to increased problems with predation on cattle and a greater tolerance toward humans these wolves tend to exhibit.
Since 2014, wolf biologists have focused on a new method for introducing greater genetic diversity into wild wolf packs. Called “cross-fostering,” the technique involves placing young pups born to a mother in captivity into the den of a wild wolf mother that also has pups close to the same age. The wild foster mother raises the pups planted into the litter as wild wolves.
This year, a wolf who was cross-fostered in 2014 and raised in the wild has grown up to become part of a breeding pair, successfully adding her genetics to the population.
This spring, three pairs of pups born in captivity will be fostered into the dens of three wild mother wolves in Arizona, Greer said.
Getting his legs, getting back to wild
For AM1249, a day that began with a wild run ended as he got his legs back under him. He was put in a dog crate after his exam, and when he began to show signs that the tranquilizer was wearing off, the crate was loaded in the back of a pick-up truck and he was hauled back onto national forest lands, as close to where he was darted as snow-packed roads would allow a vehicle to go.
Cyrenea Piper and Tom Offer-Westort, of USFWS, and Linda White-Trifaro, a retired USFWS biologist who was volunteering her time, formed the ground crew for AM1249’s release. They hauled the woozy wolf’s crate through the snow to a warm, sheltered spot on the south side of a juniper and opened the door.
AM1249 did not immediately jump out.
After waiting a while, Piper encouraged his exit by lifting the back of the crate and gently dumping him out onto the grass. Like a drunk shaking off a hang-over, he laid on the grass, napping at times, sometimes making a wobbly attempt at standing up. The ground crew encouraged the humans on the scene to remain quiet and out of his way, observing from behind him.
Finally, after nearly three hours, he shook off the effects of the sedative and wandered off into the wild, seeking his pack.