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Zoo hopes new arrival will help boost gray wolf numbers

With any luck, the ABQ BioPark Zoo will host a pack of Mexican gray wolves in the near future, assuming there’s wolf chemistry between Kawi and new resident Ryder.

Ryder, a 4-year-old Mexican gray wolf, was transferred earlier this month from the Binder Park Zoo in Michigan to join 4-year-old female Kawi. At the same time, 7-year-old male Apache was moved from the BioPark Zoo to his new home at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago.

bright spot“Flint, the last male we sent to Brookfield Zoo back in 2014 was successful at siring pups there,” ABQ BioPark Zoo mammal curator Erin Flynn said Thursday.

The Mexican gray wolf is the rarest of all the subspecies of gray wolf, and the transferring of the animals from zoo to zoo is part of the Mexican Gray Wolf Species Survival Plan, intended to ensure their long-term sustainability and genetic diversity.

“It’s kind of like eHarmony for zoo animals,” Flynn said. “Kawi has not had any pups yet, and it’s getting close to breeding season,” which is generally in the cooler months from January through April.

Mexican gray wolves, often called lobos, used to roam a territory stretching from central Mexico north into southern Arizona and New Mexico, and southwest Texas. By the mid 1900s, they had been hunted to near extinction, primarily by ranchers protecting their cattle and other livestock from the wolves, who looked to other food sources as their native prey dwindled.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered species in 1976, and subsequently undertook efforts to save the species from extinction through a wolf recovery and reintroduction program.

In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, began reintroducing captive-reared Mexican wolves into the wild. The reintroduction area covers New Mexico and Arizona, roughly from Interstate 40 south to the Mexican border. As of 2017, the agency had recorded about 115 Mexican gray wolves surviving in that zone.

As part of that program, Flynn said, healthy pups born at zoos are switched in their dens with pups in the wild, which are located using various tracking devices and radio collars. “This increases the genetic diversity and makes sure both populations are going strong,” she said. “It’s a cool application that shows how zoo animals are helping their wild counterparts.”

Wolves are inherently resilient animals, Flynn said. “They are smart, live in packs that are family groups, and are incredibly social. They survive through cooperation while hunting, warning each other of danger and raising their young.” Communication involves body language, vocalizations and marking their territory.

In the wild, packs can contain up to 35 members, depending on resources. They can weigh from 50-80 pounds, measure 5.5 feet from nose to tail and live 5-6 years. In facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, they often live an average of 11 years.

The relocation of Ryder to the BioPark Zoo and Apache to the Brookfield Zoo was aided by LightHawk, a group of volunteer pilots who shuttle the animals on direct flights and in temperature-controlled cabins to minimize stress on the animals.