LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION
Photo US Fish and Wildlife
By Lindsey Botts
A lone Mexican gray wolf named Anubis was captured by an Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist on Friday in the Coconino National Forest just north of Flagstaff.
The wolf was almost immediately released in what’s called the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, a 98.5 million-acre expanse south of Interstate 40 that serves as the primary management zone for the endangered wolf species.
It’s also a part of the tract where Anubis, named by students in a contest, started his journey.
The wolf’s capture and release was significant because he had been roaming north of Interstate 40, the line that marks the northern boundary of the designated Mexican wolf recovery zone.
The relocation of a Mexican gray wolf has disappointed some wolf advocacy groups that had hoped the wolf would be allowed to roam freely.
That zone straddles the Arizona border with New Mexico and is often where wolf releases occur. It includes parts of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. In a testament to how far wolves can travel, the center of the area is approximately 200 miles south of where Anubis was captured.
State officials hope the release area will offer him the best chance of survival and keep him away from people. It has a limited human presence and few heavily trafficked roads. More importantly, said Arizona Game and Fish Mexican Wolf coordinator Jim deVos, the relocation puts the wolf closer to other wolves where he can potentially find a mate and be a part of recovery.
“We believe that wolf was in jeopardy,” deVos said. “Now he’ll be back in an area with females, finding a female partner, forming a pack, and contributing to the recovery. That’s what our goal was.”
Advocates, scientists favor fewer limits
The relocation disappointed some wolf advocacy groups that had hoped Anubis would be allowed to roam freely. The groups say he had not posed any danger to humans and had been a prime example of good wolf behavior. He fed on elk carcasses, stayed away from livestock and didn’t exhibit any signs of danger.
“I’m disappointed to hear that Anubis was captured,” said Emily Renn, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, based in Flagstaff. “Most people chose to live surrounded by the national forest for a reason, because they love the seclusion and are willing to coexist with wild nature.”
The wolf’s venture northward also excited scientists. Many of the wolf biologists involved in the initial draft Mexican wolf recovery plan have advocated for an expanded recovery zone that included areas north of I-40. The need for separate but connected populations was a key component of the original plan.
It was needed, they said, to ensure that robust, thriving populations of Mexican wolves persisted well into the future. It would mean that there was a greater opportunity for genetic exchange, and would increase the odds of survival and enhance adaptation in the face of climate change.
Anubis seemed to offer hope to people who shared this view and who thought his natural migration would spur enthusiasm for establishing a pack in the area. Even some area residents expressed excitement that the wolf was making his home in the area.
“I would hate to see this wolf removed or relocated. My family and I understand that by living in the forest, we need to coexist with the animals who live here, too,” said Jeff Meilander, a Baderville area resident, in a news release from the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. “We are thrilled that one of the few wild wolves in Arizona has taken up residence here and think it’s incredibly cool that he is successfully hunting elk and adding to the biodiversity of Northern Arizona.”
But the wolf’s proximity to people worried state wildlife agents.
“(The wolf) had tendencies to remain in and around housing developments. The problem with that is twofold,” deVos said. “One is, no matter how we try to make people aware of wolves, there are those people that would either intentionally or accidentally shoot a wolf that was in proximity to housing. The other thing is, and this shouldn’t be lost in history, that four wolves have been roadkill in and around the Flagstaff area.”
Wolf count:Mexican gray wolf population continues to expand, growing by 14% in 2020 survey
In total, the state counted three I-40 crossings by Anubis and six sightings by people, including one that was posted on Facebook. That alarmed the state agency, which feared Anubis might have become habituated, thus increasing the likelihood that he would have been shot or hit by a vehicle.
DeVos said the I-40 boundary was set to align with what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with managing endangered species, determined was the historic range of Mexican wolves. But even that has been disputed, with scientists saying there’s evidence of Mexican wolves living as far north as the southern Rocky Mountains.
The travels of Anubis highlighted the fact that Mexican wolves are capable of traversing vast distances. He dispersed from the Dark Canyon Pack, which lives in the Gila National Forest, and had been tracked in the northern Arizona area since mid-May. The state wildlife agency initially had planned to capture him earlier, but was hampered by record-breaking heat and wildfires.
Under the 2017 Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, the agency is required to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to capture and release any wolf that ventures north of I-40. The interstate has become a hot topic over the years as advocacy groups and wolf scientists argue for either an expanded recovery zone or to simply let Mexican wolves persist into southern Utah and Colorado.
Federal officials are currently rewriting the regulation that governs Mexican wolf management in response to a lawsuit by conservation groups. In 2018, a federal court in Tucson found that the agency committed an “egregious oversight” in ignoring the “dire warning” of scientists that its 2015 Mexican wolf experimental population rule would compromise recovery of the species.
Rewriting the rule could be an opportunity to eliminate the boundary, says Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit.
“Independent scientists have long recommended that the wolves be allowed to move at will and should only be removed based on their behavior rather than based on an arbitrary line on the map,” Robinson said. “If a wolf like Anubis is contributing to recovery and not bothering anyone, it makes no sense that he had to be removed.”
For now, Anubis and others like him will have to exhibit one of the unlikeliest of wolf behaviors: staying in one place.
“Is it interesting that we had a wolf north of I-40? Is it something that a lot of people thought was good? No doubt about it,” deVos said. “But was it in the best interest of the wolf? And I think that’s where the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state came down, that it needed to be moved back into an area where it had a greater chance to find a mate and where its likelihood of survival was markedly increased.”