Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
RESERVE – U.S. Fish and Wildlife crews fly above the forests of Catron County in a helicopter. A nearby airplane relays the location of a Mexican gray wolf. Fresh snow has made the animals easier to spot from the air.
“Starting pursuit,” the helicopter crew broadcasts over the radio.
Once the helicopter is close enough, a veterinarian shoots the wolf with a tranquilizer dart, and it is transported by helicopter to a processing site just outside Reserve.
The wolf is carried off the aircraft by Maggie Dwier, assistant Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife.
Then, the real work begins.
The 55-pound male wolf from the Colibrí pack is nearly a year old. He gets his first radio collar, decorated with bright duct tape, which will make him easy to identify on game cameras.
Field workers fill an IV with fluids, antibiotics and vaccinations for the young wolf at the makeshift “clinic.” They measure the wolf’s height, examine his teeth, record the animal’s body temperature and check that a microchip is working.
The capture-and-release operation is part of an annual two-week field survey that will help inform Fish and Wildlife’s wolf population report, which will be released in the coming months.
Once a year, Fish and Wildlife partners with other federal and state wildlife agencies for aerial surveys in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona to determine how many of the endangered wolves live in the wild.
Year-round observations by other agencies involved in the recovery efforts – the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and New Mexico Game and Fish – also inform those population estimates.
Examining wild wolves helps determine where the program is helping to create a healthy wolf population.
Wolf packs in the region are usually five to eight animals, according to Brady McGee, the coordinator for the Mexican gray wolf program. New Mexico has 16 identified wolf packs. “The wolf subspecies here are not as territorial as the larger wolves in areas up north like Yellowstone,” McGee said. “Territories of our different packs overlap here. They are also not really moving out of their core area yet, but we hope they disperse more into Arizona.”
Biologists take blood samples from the wolf. Some of that blood goes to a laboratory at the University of New Mexico. Wolf blood is tested for diseases and entered into a database to create a fuller picture of each pack’s genetics.
The wolf is loaded onto the helicopter and flown back to the forest, where field workers release him once the sedatives wear off.
The reintroduction program started in 1998 with seven captive wolves. Now, 250 Mexican gray wolves live in captivity in New Mexico and Arizona.
At the end of 2018, Fish and Wildlife reported about 131 Mexican gray wolves in the wild. New Mexico had 67 wolves, while 64 wolves were counted in Arizona. That represented a 12% increase from 117 wolves at the end of 2017.
The current recovery plan has a goal of an average population of 320 wild wolves over four years.
Fish and Wildlife processed at least a dozen wild wolves as of Jan. 31 in the two states for this year’s operation.
The agencies spend months planning which wolf packs they want to target for capture and release. Wolves with failing collars or no collars are top priorities, as are animals that were born in captivity, then cross-fostered into wild wolf dens.
This year’s operation has located new breeding pairs, including at least one wolf that was born in captivity.
Cross-fostering is a crucial part o f the wolf recovery program. Fish and Wildlife releases captive pups into dens that already have wild pups, and the wild pack raises them as their own.
“Cross-fostering is a great way to increase genetic diversity,” McGee said. “You get wild adult wolves teaching pups how to be wild.”
The interagency team cross-fostered seven wolf pups in New Mexico in 2018. This year, the agencies have the go-ahead to do as many cross-fosters as possible.
“It’s a great feeling to find a wolf in the wild that you helped place in a den,” said Dwier, the deputy coordinator who has worked with the recovery program since 2000.
But while wolf numbers have climbed steadily, so have livestock kills. Last year was the worst for livestock kills by wolves since the recovery program began, with 122 confirmed wolf kills by the end of November.
It’s an issue wildlife agencies are determined to tackle: building up a self-sustaining, genetically diverse wolf population while reducing the negative impacts on ranchers and livestock.
In November, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish once again became a partner agency in the wolf recovery efforts.
McGee said Game and Fish field biologists will likely be a big help with cross-fostering and reducing livestock kills.
“Depredations can be effectively reduced with human presence by just scaring the wolves away,” McGee said. “Year-round calving is a tricky issue here in New Mexico. We are encouraging ranchers to rethink their livestock management in wolf areas, and the best ideas for how to do that come from those ranchers. One Catron County rancher had 15 animals killed by wolves one year, and then changed some things around and reduced that number to three kills last year.”
Even though last year was bad for cattle kills, the majority of a wolf’s diet consists of elk.
The agencies continue to educate communities about coexisting with wild wolves. Next year, Fish and Wildlife wants to invite high school teachers from communities where wolves are present to attend the annual count.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.