The wild Mexican wolf population grew by 24% last year to a total of 163 wolves - higher than it’s been since reintroduction. This success is, in large part, due to the hard work of amazing interns working on Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts. These dedicated volunteers are instrumental in every step of the process, from field camera monitoring to helicopter counts to one of the most successful cross-fostering events! To make this happen, Defenders teamed-up with the California Wolf Center, a captive breeding facility for Mexican gray wolves, to support a field internship program, where volunteers with experience in biology and wildlife management help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department to monitor wolves and implement conflict-reduction tools and techniques to give our lobos the greatest chance of success in the wild. One of our former interns, Austin Rife, was so good at this he became a contractor with Defenders to focus exclusively on deterring wolf-livestock conflicts. Some of our interns ended their time with the program in March, and while we’re sad to see them go, we’re excited to see what they do next for wildlife and conservation!
January – Helicopter Counts
January was my first month working with the USFWS on the Mexican wolf recovery project, though previous to this position I was an intern with the AZGFD on the same project. I started the month helping Ed get track counts on multiple packs in his area and move some cameras around. To prep for helicopter operations myself and the other volunteers attended a couple meetings, organized necessary equipment, tested radios and drove to all the possible remote helicopter sites to learn our way around.
Most days we came in early and got all our equipment out or loaded into trucks depending on where we were stationed for the day. Once we were at our assigned site, ‘Hurry up and wait’ was the theme of most days. We scrambled to get everything set up in case a wolf came in and then waited in anticipation of the ‘Dart in’ call over the radio. Once a wolf arrived someone was ready in a flight suit, helmet, and gloves to approach the helicopter and receive the wolf. I really enjoyed this task and I could carry the wolf, give it to the processing crew, and then stand back and watch it be worked up.
January! What a month! I feel like the whole internship has led up to this month. Why? Helicopter count and capture! Biologists flying around in a helicopter darting wolves and bringing them back for us interns to process and radio collar. How cool is this job? It really does not get any better than this.
Helicopter capture was easily one of the coolest and most educational things I have done thus far in my wildlife career. A typical day started with everybody showing up around 7am to get things in order for the day. This would include cleaning crates for the wolves, warming up fluids, loading up trucks with processing gear, hooking up UTVs and accounting for everybody. Once we had all the necessary gear, we would then all head out to a remote processing site. This was our home base for the day.
Once a wolf was captured, we were notified over the radio and we began to get things ready. By processing a wolf, I learned how to draw blood and vaccinate a wolf. And of course, there was collaring! The hardest part of collaring was picking out which groovy colors to give the wolf for the collar. We would use colored duct tape around the collar to identify each wolf when we see him or her on camera. (I think 1856 got the grooviest collar with a purple box and some rainbow zig zags along the band.)
I cannot thank everybody enough for the opportunity to be a part of such a great team and an amazing reintroduction effort. I was able to see the whole IFT come together under one common goal. This is what field biology is about!
Several inches of snow has turned the gently rolling landscape around me into a sterile plane. Although the sun set hours ago, the moon is full and it’s light reflects off the white snow, giving the earth a ghostly glow and allowing me to see clearly in all directions. I don’t need a headlamp tonight. The wind blows crisp and cold as I softly descend the hillside, my quarry is near and as of yet unaware of my approach. I glance quickly at my receiver. Normally a steady beat of low beeps would guide my direction, but this close I’ve turned the volume all the way down and visually watch the bars jump across my screen with every signal. I’m so close now, my heart is beating fast in anticipation of what is about to happen.
Then there they are! Two shadows materialize in the darkness and glide noiselessly across the snow. The pair of wolves I’ve been sneaking up on for the past half hour move like ghosts, seeming to float across the ground as they dart away from me into the distance. They’re on to me now and the chase is on. The silence is broken by the shrill scream of an air horn as I hurry after them. I’ll only see them for a few more seconds before they disappear over the next hill, but my receiver ensures I can stay on their trail as long as I need to. Once I find their tracks, I won’t even need that. After some time, my tireless pursuit comes to an end. We’ve crossed back onto the National Forest and the only evidence of my two wolves is a fading series of beeps from my receiver, disappearing into the south. My job is done, for now.
After processing wolves and collecting necessary data we loaded the wolf into a crate to recover from the Telazol. Although processing wolves provides unsurpassed experience with a charismatic species, my personal favorite responsibility during helo ops was in returning wolves back into their home range.
Wolves are elusive animals that can be difficult to see in the wild. Therefore, releasing them after processing provided a great opportunity to admire these animals up close and of course, a great photo opportunity. My favorite release came from mp1911 because he is a cross foster from last year. Cross foster pups are important for bolstering genetics and adding to the wild population. He is a healthy animal and is with a mate in a wilderness area in New Mexico.
For two days I had been down by the Blue River area tracking several different wolves. Between walking through a creek to only run into ice and cliffs, and getting close to the pack too late in the day to go any further before dark, I was excited to have recent GPS locations from the Prime Canyon pack that would give me a good chance of successfully walking in on the pack. I continuously checked for collar signals with my receiver and H antenna to ensure I was heading in the right direction as I hiked. Over a cattle fence, down a canyon and across a ridge top, the signal from the breeding male (1471) was coming in right in front of me across the next canyon. I scanned for almost an hour before beginning to think they were farther than I thought, maybe one more canyon over? So I scaled down the side, crossed the creek and hiked up to the top of the ridge I was just scanning. Slowly, quietly, I marched through the snow to find another good vantage point.
As I hiked along the ridge top, three wolves suddenly began trotting out of the trees towards me! Mouth open to pant, tongue sticking out, the center wolf spotted me before calmly turning around and heading back the way he came. I didn't speed up, I didn't make a sound, the only thought on my mind was "look for the collars."
Prime Canyon is a large pack with at least seven known collared wolves. That's a lot of eyes and ears, making them difficult to sneak up on. And even though I successfully found them, I couldn't get a solid count on the pack, I only saw the three. After circling the area for an hour, hoping to find more tracks than just the three, I decided to make one last desperate attempt, I howled. Silence. I had done what I could, and began to hike back down the canyon the way I came.
The climb back up the canyon was steep and rocky, so my ascent was slow going. I repeatedly looked back to where I saw the wolves each time I stopped to take a breath. Halfway up the slope, I turned around to see two wolves trotting along the ridge top towards where I just was. I immediately sat on the ground to look for collars through my binoculars. Orange collar and an uncollared! The orange collared wolf took a stance, and began to howl and the uncollared wolf soon joined in. I sat for nearly an hour savoring this moment. Just me and the wolves, a two-hour hike from the nearest dirt road. As I lost sight of them, I could still occasionally hear them howling as I began my hike out.
February – New Experiences
February brought a lot of great new experiences. Helicopter captures finished up and an opportunity arose to help capture wolves held in captivity. I drove out to the captive facility with a couple other volunteers and we settled into our housing for the next few nights.
Some wolves were being captured for a regular health check and were therefore processed quickly in their den box. Other wolves were targeted to collect semen in preparation for the upcoming breeding season and were put into a crate and sent down to the vet office for the procedure. I was offered an opportunity to watch the semen collection and had no idea what to expect but was eager to learn about the whole process. Once the wolf arrived at the office they were drugged, received a health check and vaccine booster, and then we collected the semen using a probe. It was a completely new experience for me and I learned a lot. I learned so much over the few days we helped out and had the opportunity to participate in a variety of completely new experiences. I was an amazing time and I would jump at the opportunity to help out again!
Walking in on a wolf continues to be both a challenging and rewarding experience while working with the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. This time, I had been tracking down 1697, formally a wolf from the Elk Horn pack. With Valentine's day and breeding season right around the corner, there is lots of potential for breeding wolf pairs. The wolf I was looking for had not been with her pack the past few days, but rather, her GPS points showed her in close proximity with 1441, a previous Saffe pack member. After setting up a new remote trail camera, I hoped to capture pictures of 1697, but a visual sighting is always helpful and informative when attempting to assess and document the well-being of these wolves.
As I followed the tracks, I tried to read them: how fast were they moving, how long ago did they walk through here? I compared the prints to my own, and began to realize these were very fresh tracks! Continuing on, I also found elk tracks moving in the same direction. It wasn't long before I looked up to see a small group of elk beginning to trot away from me. The wolf signals were getting louder, so I knew I was getting closer. A few more elk passed in front of me as I walked along a deep canyon. I clicked on my receiver and blaring loud as can be, 1697's signal was deafening. Almost out of nowhere, an elk popped up from the canyon not more than 100 feet away from where I stood. I looked across the canyon and spotted three more elk standing along the opposite end, and trotting around them were three wolves! Three wolves? I was expecting two! 1697, 1441, and one other, but who?
I was unfortunately too far away to see collar colors, and their fluffy winter coats made it difficult to tell if the unknown wolf had a collar or not. Once out of sight, I scanned through every single wolf in my receiver twice before concluding that the third wolf was indeed uncollared. Excited to see three wolves together who all seemed to be in good health and actively hunting was the best way to end my day.
March – Goodbyes
Well here it is. The end for me. That was fast! What a great way to get through a winter! I’m excited for the future but can’t help but be a bit sad to leave this project. Nothing is going to stop this program nor the growth of the wolf population. I would bet within my lifetime we will see wolves on the Coconino.
I’m so happy to have taken part in this program. I want to thank everybody for the hard work and dedication they showed me as well as towards their work. It’s no easy thing to navigate the challenges of building a wolf population in the ranch heavy Southwest nor is it easy work putting up with me so thank you all. I know as this population grows there will be greater challenges to overcome but given the right people and the right motivations, I believe these challenges will be met with even greater determination. I want to wish everybody on the program the best of luck in the coming years. With any luck maybe you’ll see me again.
Unfortunately, March was my last month as a volunteer on the Mexican wolf recovery project. Throughout my six months I gained a wealth of experience that will hopefully perpetuate my career in working with large carnivores, especially wolves. During my time as a volunteer I got to work up several wolves during the tail end of trapping season, participate in helicopter operations, walk-in on wolves, and further skills in telemetry, tracking, and remote camera setting. Not only did I get to be up close with wolves, but got the chance to get close to a couple of black bears, and a mountain lion. Overall to succeed as a volunteer on this project you must be; flexible, open-minded, have a positive attitude, and be patient with tedious tasks. My time on the project was better than I could have imagined. Although I’m sad to leave the project, I am also excited for what may be next.
Some of the most memorable moments were also some of the most unexpected. Finding ourselves on the front page of the newspaper, getting an evening call to go rescue someone stuck in the mud, and even seeing the change in wildlife as spring begins. Bighorn sheep are now a common sight at the Alpine Divide along Highway 180, once frozen water tanks are now alive with salamanders, and herds of 200 plus elk now regularly graze in the town pastures lush with fresh green.
There are two things I will miss the most when I finally leave. One, is the people. The Mexican Wolf IFT is such a fantastic collaboration of hardworking and dedicated people, biologists and interns alike. It has been difficult thinking about goodbyes, but all good things must come to an end I guess. The second, is being in the presence of the magnificent Escudilla Mountain. When I first got to Alpine, it was an amazing sight to see, but its full powerful meaning, and representation of protecting wilderness, had not hit me till a few weeks ago. From afar, the mountain rises into the sky, and from the right view, can be the only thing tall enough in view of the flat mesas. This mountain is the very same written about by Aldo Leopold, and I have truly appreciated the mountain and wolves more so since coming to this realization.