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By Trudy Balcom
ALPINE — For the Mexican wolf Interagency Field Team, midwinter is a busy time. Late January through early February is when the team works to get an accurate count of the number of Mexican gray wolves in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
While biologists on the team began the work of counting on the ground in November and December, the highlight of annual survey comes when the team uses helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to count the animals, and capture some for collaring.
The aerial count was scheduled to begin January 21 and run through February 2, but has was delayed due to the partial government shutdown. Once the government re-opened, the count was started on February 7 and will end on February 23, barring another shutdown.
On Tuesday in Alpine, two female wolves were darted by the helicopter crew on two separate flights. The wolves were flown to Alpine to receive a veterinary exam and to be fitted with collars. The wolves are darted with a sedative, Telozol, that allows them to be safely handled and examined.
The first young female to be brought in during the early afternoon was designated f1830 by the Interagency Field Team. All of the collared wolves receive numbers that individually identify them. The lower case ‘f’ indicates that she is still a juvenile.
This female was born into the Hoodoo Pack, one of five pups, in 2017. She is just reaching the age when she will begin exploring on her own and eventually leave her pack in search of a mate. When she was darted, the pack was running near Mexican Hay Lake, southwest of Eagar. The young wolf weighed about 60 pounds.
For the members of the wolf count team, getting the captured wolves through their exam and collaring is a wait-and-hurry-up process.
The staff of biologists and veterinarians from several agencies — AZGFD, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service and several other cooperating entities, including some from Mexico, passed the time on catching up on email or other tasks around a table sprinkled with paperwork, stale muffins and coffee cups. On the walls are maps of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forests, wolf posters, and white boards with hand-drawn tables that list the names of the wolf packs, and information gathered from the count so far.
A contract staffer monitored the radio communications with the helicopter. There was no telling when a wolf would actually be darted. They just had to wait.
Then the radio crackles with the news that an animal is on its way. A buzz of excitement and anticipation filled the room. Suddenly everyone was in a hurry.
The crew that actually takes the wolf from the helicopter suits up in protective gear, per protocol, for the short walk up to the the chopper to fetch the wolf.
Then some people piled into cars and trucks for a short drive from the Wolf Team HQ to the helicopter landing site, just up the hill.
For a moment, the wolf is kind of like a movie star on the red carpet, but they’ll never know it.
The limp, anesthetized wolf is gingerly pulled out of the chopper and carefully carried off. There is no way for the critter to know that for the next 30 minutes, it will be the focus of intense scrutiny.
The animal is taken to a cramped exam room, where a crew of five or six, including biologists, veterinarians, interns and a record keeper with a clipboard scuttle around each other, working as quickly as they can.
After it is weighed, the wolf is placed on an exam table on top of a sleeping bag to keep it warm. Fluids are administered intravenously to keep the animal hydrated. The animal’s temperature, heart rate and other vitals are closely monitored. Blood samples are taken so that the wolf’s DNA can be identified. Vaccinations, the same as pet dogs receive, are administered to protect the animal’s health. Measurements are made of the wolf’s size and even its teeth.
Why so much attention to an animal that in a few hours will again be trotting with its pack?
The Mexican gray wolf is the rarest subspecies of wolf in North America, and the scientists working towards the recovery of this federally endangered species want to give each individual animal the best possible chance of survival, to help protect the species as a whole.
The tracking collars the captured wolves are fitted with are part of this effort.
On Tuesday, Gloria Straube was on hand to help, and she was working on getting the collar onto the yearling female wolf from the Hoodoo Pack. Straube was participating in the count as part of her work for the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis Missouri, a facility that breeds wolves in captivity in an effort to increase the genetic diversity. Straube applied a layer of brightly colored duct tape to the collar, making it visible, before securing it around the sleeping wolf’s neck.
The collars will help biologists track the movements of this female, which will become important when she finds a mate.
“(The) yearling female traveling with the (Hoodoo) pack was captured so that it could be fitted with a GPS tracking collar. This will allow project biologists to track this animal after it disperses from the Hoodoo Pack and when it forms a breeding pair of its own. The tracking collar will also be used to aid AGFD biologists to mitigate potential wolf/livestock conflict and other management efforts to reduce conflict with wolves and humans, wrote J. Paul Greer, the head of the Interagency Field Team.
Once the wolf’s exam and processing is complete, the animal was placed in a dog crate, still anesthetized. It was transported to a location near its pack, where it is monitored by the biologists until it is fully alert and leaves the crate.
After about 30 minutes in the crate f1830 started to open her eyes and move about groggily.
Staff checked on her from time to time, but soon a new wolf, another female was brought in and the process was repeated, as it is for each wolf captured. Last year 24 wolves were captured, collared and released.
Last years’ count tallied 114 Mexican gray wolves in the wild. The count, officials say, provides an accurate, but minimum number, meaning that some wolves may go uncounted.
Figures from this year’s count are expected to be released sometime in March.