U.S. Fish and Wildlife counts, treats and gathers data on Mexican gray wolf population in Gila National Forest - Albuquerque Journal

U.S. Fish and Wildlife counts, treats and gathers data on Mexican gray wolf population in Gila National Forest

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

APACHE CREEK – It was a clear, sunny day with snow on the ground, when a helicopter landed in a clearing on the Gila National Forest. A woman in a baggy jumpsuit, orange helmet and aviators approached the helicopter and came away with a 50 pound Mexican gray wolf.

The pup of the year in a soft, winter coat was limp in her arms. She was greeted by the crew of government and nonprofit workers about 100 feet away, where they weighed her and laid her on a padded truck bed. A half dozen people, including veterinarians, swarmed in.

This is a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual Mexican gray wolf count, an effort to collect data on population and health that is published in the spring.

Last year, the program reported a minimum of 196 wolves and 5% growth from the year before and 12% over the last 10 years. Its goal is to maintain at least 10% growth.

As part of the federal agency’s Wolf Recovery Plan to bolster the population of the endangered species, it keeps tabs on more than just their numbers. This wolf would get a health check, her vaccines and a tracking collar in this makeshift vet’s office.

“We shoot them with an anesthetic dart so that they won’t remember all of this,” FWS veterinarian Dr. Susan Dicks said.

A team of three in a helicopter locates the wolves and darts them from the air. “We do nothing painful to them, but if you’re a wild animal, the whole experience is terrifying.”

She said they don’t want to hurt the wolves, they also don’t want the wolves to lose their healthy fear of humans, which keeps them safely away from cars and communities.

Dicks was one of the lead veterinarians on this team, which had people at all stages of their careers in wildlife preservation. When the group made their introductions, she corrected a younger veterinarian who left the title “doctor” out from her name.

She and her colleague Dr. Ole Alcumbrac narrated what they did and guided others through procedures.

This wolf had a wound on her neck that the team treated.

“The most common reason she might have an abscess would be squabbling with her family,” Dicks said. “If she were your dog, we might give you some pills to give twice a day for 14 days. But because she’s a wolf, we can’t do that.”

Instead, they gave her a long-lasting antibiotic injection that Dicks said would do the trick.

As the team checked out the wolf on the truck bed, one of her features sparked interest and a flurry of pictures – her bobtail. Alcumbrac said that’s unusual, and something she could’ve been born with. It wouldn’t hinder her, but it might mean she’s a little more subtle.

“A sign of dominance in a canine is tail up, and sign of submission is tail down,” Alcumbrac said. “She can still do that and communicate those – it’ll be just a little bit different and a new language that the pack has to learn.”

The FWS program is in this wolf’s genes. Part of the difficulty of rehabilitating Mexican gray wolves is that their gene pool is thin – these wolves descend from seven wolves captured in the 1980s. Conservation groups often protest that this program doesn’t address that.

FWS Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator Brady McGee said the team walks a very thin line in that regard. “You’re not going to be able to please everybody in this program,” he said. ‘I’m trying to find a middle-of-the-road balance to offset the impacts to the livestock industry, but also at the same time grow the population and reestablish it here to a point that it’s self-sustaining.”

Michael Robinson, a Center for Biological Diversity senior conservation advocate, argued that in walking that line the Fish and Wildlife Service has missed opportunities to expand and protect the gene pool. That includes the recent capture of another young, female wolf near Taos, who had wandered outside of the protected zone and was relocated temporarily to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro.

“They should be doing the opposite,” he said “They should be introducing a population of Mexican wolves into the southern Rocky Mountains, cooperating with authorities and in Colorado and in New Mexico.”

But the wolf on the end of the truck bed’s family has crossed paths with Dr. Susan Dicks before. She calls “puppy cross fostering,” where conservation workers like her introduce young wolves raised in captivity to wild wolf dens, her “pet, baby, area of expertise.”

“I put her mom in a den when she was a tiny puppy,” she said. “I took a bunch of pictures so that I can send them to the Brookfield Zoo and say here is a granddaughter in the wild of the wolf you have.”

As the veterinarians wrapped up their work, two members of the team brought out a crate that they had warmed up in a truck and put the wolf inside it.

A second wolf arrived via helicopter, and as he was checked and vaccinated by the team, an intern sat in a fold-up chair, under a blanket, waiting for the first wolf to stir and show signs she was ready to go back into the wild.

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