Revitalizing the Mexican gray wolf

The Mexican wolf historically roamed much of the mountainous Southwest, from current-day Mexico City to what is now Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

One of the saddest moments in Colleen Buchanan's career happened the morning of Sept. 7, 1999, when she discovered two endangered Mexican wolf pups, dead from a virus, as their mourning mother whimpered nearby.

Buchanan could easily identify with the maternal sense of loss; as caretaker for wolves in the canyon-nestled captive breeding facility at New Mexico's Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, she has a unique empathy for the wolves.

For six years, Buchanan, 34, has worked closely with Mexican wolves: feeding them, observing them, and recommending which ones would make good candidates for release as part of a federal wolf reintroduction program. Embroiled in the plight of this endangered species, she confesses that she often dreams of wolves at night.

Buchanan understands the burdensome fact that human hands now determine the survival — or extinction — of a prehistoric evolutionary masterpiece. According to "Wolf to Woof" (National Geographic, Jan. 2002), gray wolves, which evolved about 1 million years ago, crossed the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia into North America about 800,000 years ago. The wolves spread across the continent and, through natural selection, adapted to the rigors of their local environments.

Some developed into distinct subspecies. The Mexican wolf — Canis lupus baileyi — historically roamed much of the mountainous Southwest, from current-day Mexico City to what is now Albuquerque.

Less than an hour's drive south of Albuquerque lies the rugged acreage that is Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. I first met Buchanan here a few years back, before any captive wolves had been released to the wild, when I was helping with some of the daily grind at the refuge.

Part of the routine includes supplementing the kibble diet of the captive wolves with a taste for the wild meat they will need to hunt when they are free.

Near headquarters, the refuge houses a walk-in freezer used to store the carcasses of roadkill that will be later fed to the wolves. A glimpse inside provides insight into some of the less glorious work of wolf recovery: a nightmarish display of blood-crusted hide, hooves, and limbs of deer and elk stacked in disarray, frozen solid, sticking out in all directions. On this particularly hot day in late August, another refuge worker, Angel Montoya, took it upon himself to teach me the methodology of collecting and dissecting roadkill.

After driving an hour south to a mile marker identified to us by the State Highway Department, we located a monstrous elk corpse on the side of I-25. We winched the animal, which stank of rotting musk, onto the bed of the truck, leaving a swarm of maggots slithering in the bloody roadside puddle beneath the scorching Southwestern sun.

The elk had been slammed in its hindquarter. Elk is among the wolf's favorite fare on nature's menu, but the restaurant hasn't always served it up. In the late 1800s, because of unregulated subsistence and market hunting, populations of deer and elk were unusually low while livestock populations exploded.

Cattle and sheep roamed freely, eating much of the grasses and forbs needed by the rapidly declining populations of deer and elk. A limited supply of native prey remained for the wolves, and they resorted to preying on cattle.

Through the windshield, Montoya pointed out sections of the land where overgrazing had taken its toll, where scrawny patches of grama grass competed against eroding spots of bare earth for the same real estate.

At the core of the wolves' plight lies a chronicle of competing forces, of an ecosystem altered by burgeoning economies and government policies. For the better part of the 20th century, a U.S.-government-sponsored, predator-control program used poisons, guns, and traps to eliminate wolves and other predators who threatened livestock.

Steel-jawed leg-hold traps were available at practically any hardware store. Carcasses and other bait were laced with sodium cyanide, strychnine, and a poisonous concoction called Compound 1080. In 1914, the government paid $10 bounties for the capture or kill of a Mexican wolf, today's equivalent of about $175.

Between the years 1915 and 1925, more than 900 Mexican wolves were reported killed in Arizona and New Mexico by government trappers or cooperators. By the late 1970s, the Mexican wolf population no longer existed in the United States. The few wolves remaining were in Mexico, and the future of the subspecies looked grim.

At last, the Mexican wolf received federal protection when it was listed as an endangered species in 1976, three years after the Endangered Species Act was passed. During the next few years, in diametric contradiction to the government's purpose 50 years earlier, five wolves were captured in Mexico. They were used to establish a Mexican wolf-breeding program.

A flash of lightning presaged a sudden summer torrent as we pulled into the refuge's gravel parking lot at the foot of the rust-colored Ladrone Mountains. We dragged the elk corpse onto the gravel. Montoya gave me a buck knife, a hatchet, and a pair of leather gloves and showed me how to quarter the animal, wincing slightly as the blade ripped through the tough, wiry-haired hide, making a sound similar to heavy fabric being torn.

I hesitated but, as instructed, began to remove organs ever so gingerly. The now pounding rain drew an earthy smell, the organic comingling of living and dead matter. The facility at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, where Montoya was beginning to relish the lesson I was learning, would eventually become one of 43 zoos and breeding centers accommodating Mexican wolves.

As we began hacking away at the hind legs, the elk's ruptured intestine slipped through an underbelly gash and began ejecting a fountain of green bile. Fighting nausea triggered by the worst smell I have ever known, I could barely contain my retching. Montoya chuckled. He was used to the routine. After 24 years of effort to increase numbers, there are now about 200 wolves in captivity throughout the United States and Mexico.

Before recommending individual captive wolves for release, recovery biologists like Buchanan look for ideal traits based on age, an ability to bond with a mate, a strong flight response to humans, a diverse genetic background, and other factors.

Although ultimate recovery goals have yet to be determined, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's initial recovery objective was to establish a viable, self-sustaining, wild population of at least 100 Mexican gray wolves within the Blue Range area by 2006.

The Blue Range, which includes Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona and the adjoining Gila National Forest in New Mexico, is a 7,000-square-mile area more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. As an area with a large prey base and a small human population, it was selected by a team of biologists as the ideal recovery zone for the wolves to reclaim part of their historic territory.

Obviously, much dirty work is involved in preparing wolves born in captivity for life in the wild. As I battled my nerves gutting the elk, Buchanan suddenly swung into the parking lot next to us, hopped out of her truck, and yanked a limp deer from the bed.

As the stormy skies flashed intermittently with bolts of frozen lightning, she planted a buck knife firmly into the deer's sternum and slashed a vertical line down to its crotch. She then stuck her arms into the carcass, bare handed and elbow deep, and started pulling out organs. Moments later, amidst the gore, I sensed a fleeting sadness when she removed an unborn fetus, a tiny dead deer, from its mother's womb. The human footprint on life cycles can at times appall even those with a hardened determination to minimize its impact.

On Jan. 26, 1998, biologists transferred three Mexican wolves — mother, father, and female pup — in kennels from the captive breeding facility at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to the Campbell Blue prerelease acclimation pen near Alpine, Ariz.

The acclimation pen allowed the wolves to become familiar with their new territory while reducing their tendencies to return to their previous home. Two additional family groups totaling eight wolves were placed in two other acclimation pens in the Apache National Forest.

These pens served as a final confinement before the gates opened in March 1998, allowing them to step freely into the wild where, decades ago, their ancestors roamed.

In July 1998, the first sighting of a Mexican wolf pup in the wild since the 1950s was reported. It was the offspring of a pair of wolves from Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.

In contrast to Buchanan's saddest career moment, this was her most joyous. "The success of recovery hinges on the enduring ability of wolves to breed in the wild," she said. Today there are 18 radio-collared wolves in the wild in six separate packs with an unknown number of yearlings and pups.

"It's difficult to determine exact numbers due to uncollared pups and yearlings, but our best estimates are high 20s to low 30s," Buchanan said.

A crew of biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, New Mexico Game and Fish Department, USDA's Wildlife Services, Turner Endangered Species Fund, and White Mountain Apache Tribe monitor the pioneer wolves and respond to human or livestock conflict when necessary. Because wolves are released on National Forest land, the U.S. Forest Service is another program cooperator.

Twice a week, biologists track the animals via aerial telemetry. The rest of the week, they locate the wolves on the ground, looking for tracks or scat — a challenging task given the remote location and difficult terrain wolves choose to inhabit.

If they encounter the promising circumstance of an elk or deer felled by a wolf, they try to determine how it was taken down and collect the bones to age the kill.

The field team is also evaluating new sites for future wolf releases tentatively planned for spring 2002. Old release sites may still be used depending on the movement of the wolves already in the wild.

"There are only a few programs that have reintroduced captive-born animals like the Mexican wolf program has," said Buchanan. "One is the red wolf recovery program in the Southeast. If you look at where the Mexican wolf program is today, three-and-a-half years into it, and compare it to where the red wolf program of the Southeast was at this point in the game, we are way ahead of the curve."

Committed to staying there, Buchanan now works out of a federal office building in Albuquerque, where she manages various aspects of the Mexican wolf program.

Although she spends less time outdoors carving dinners for the wolves, she is as attached to them as ever. The walls of her office are adorned with photos of wolves and other mementos of the work she has done to transfer wolves from captivity to life in the wild.

"It's always a bittersweet moment for me when wolves are released to the wild from Sevilleta," she said. "Of course, I'm thrilled they are getting their opportunity, but there is so much uncertainty out there, and they don't always make it. What gives me comfort is my belief that even just one day of freedom is better than a lifetime of captivity."