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 technicians 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 wildlife techs 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. Many of these Defenders-sponsored wildlife techs started their time with the program this spring, and we're excited to hear more from them in the next installment of Field Notes!
I have been looking forward to this project ever since I received confirmation from one of the biologists that I had been chosen to be a new team member. I moved from Humboldt County in Northern California at the beginning of the month and began work after a brief period of social isolation to ensure our team and community stays as safe as possible during the pandemic.
Aldo Leopold, a revered naturalist and author, wrote about the forests of New Mexico and Arizona in his book A Sand County Almanac. I remember passages such as Thinking Like a Mountain where he speaks of his encounters with wolves and of the last known grizzly bear to reside on Mount Escudilla. He illustrates how forests grow quiet in the absence of great predators such as bears and wolves and emphasizes the importance of preserving them on the landscape for the health of the ecosystem. I would have never dreamed I would be working in the same area as Leopold wrote about on a project which aims to restore wildlife to their historical areas.
I completed my training during the first week in order to be able to work independently during the coronavirus pandemic. My first couple days of work consisted of restocking diversionary food cache’s for wolves to lure them away from occupied cattle pastures in an effort to reduce human-wildlife conflict. We have trail cameras set up at food cache’s to help gather data in non-invasive ways.
It was my first official day on the job and I was about to come face to face with my first wolf. We drove a bumpy route for about two hours, dodging potholes, accelerating up sharping mountain roads and maneuvering through gates. Finally, Cyrenea pulled her dusty truck off the road and I dutifully followed, pulling up next to her. There, about a hundred feet before me, was a live Mexican wolf. He had a fluffy, colorful coat, filled with tan, brown and black markings. He stood there looking curiously in our direction. We cautiously approached the animal, the wolf never taking his prying eyes off us. We began processing; talking temperatures, blood samples, administering vaccinations and replacing the radio collar. After thirty minutes, we had successfully completed the processing. The wolf sauntered from the crate and began trotting back into the wild, enjoying his newfound freedom. I watched the wolf pick up his pace as he moved further and further away. After several minutes he was merely a dot on the landscape. After several more minutes he had receded into the vast wilderness surrounding us.
The past month working on this project has been nothing short of amazing. Every day I wake up with the biggest smile on my face, thoroughly motivated to do the best possible job I can to ensure the successful recovery of the Mexican wolf into their historical range.
Most of my past month has been working at food caches and with trail cameras. This is an essential part of the recovery effort. Food caches serve as a means of diverting wolves away from pastures where cattle graze. We draw wolves away from occupied cattle pastures and into other areas of suitable habitat where wolves and cattle will not come into conflict. Another reason we do food caches is to provide supplemental nutrition for wolf packs which are fostering wolf pups that have been released from captivity. Food caches provide a supplemental food source in case mom or dad can’t catch an elk that day. The best food caches are roadkill deer and elk that we locate on the side of the road. We simply move the deceased elk from the side of the road closer to the known wolf locations to help the wolf pups grow up happy and healthy.
I was lucky enough to assist a biologist in achieving a pup count on a wolf pack that recently had babies. I picked up on a wolf trail and began to follow it. I began to see clumps of wolf hair and I decided to take a quick look under a bush. As I moved the bush aside I looked down at my feet and a little wolf pup came up to my boot and began sniffing my laces – we found the den. I quickly took a look inside to get a pup count and I counted three wolf pups all laying on top. But then I saw the fourth and fifth off in a corner snuggled up together. Just as I was about to crawl back out I saw the little fella – pup number six was looking me in the eyes with the unmistakable face of curiosity. I couldn’t help but smile back as I retreated out of the den and gave the official account to the biologist I was with. We had successfully found the den and gotten an accurate count of six healthy and happy wolf pups. That is a day I will never forget.
The reason for hazing predators is usually to keep them out of areas where they are not supposed to be. Wolves will sometimes venture into the cattle pastures that surround the areas in which they live. A young calf can be a tempting snack for a hungry wolf. The biologists try to keep the wolves away from the cattle pastures, in order to keep both the cows and wolves safe.
That morning we discovered that 1684 was dangerously close to the pastures in an area called Collins Park. I had been sent to haze her further east, away from the cows. I continued to walk through the shaded canyon. Where was 1684 hiding? The vegetation was unusually dense. Perhaps, I, the stalker, was in reality being stalked. .. Beep, beep, beep. The signal was still strong and coming from the east. I was hoping to see her with my own eyes. But with the thick undergrowth and steep canyon walls, it would be nearly impossible to find her exact location. Holding the airhorn above my head, I scanned my surroundings one last time. I then pressed the button. A sharp sound spread through the forest. It was much louder than I expected and startled even myself. I dropped the airhorn and picked up the telemetry equipment. After turning on the receiver, I held the antenna high in the air. The signal started strong, but quickly got weaker and weaker. Even though I never saw her, I had successfully hazed 1684. She had fled east, away from the pastures and back toward her territory. I then ambled through the canyon toward my truck, content with the knowledge that both the cows and the wolf were safe.
The majority of my work days at the beginning of this month were spent resting during the day so that I could go out at night and chase the wolves out of problematic areas around town. One of my more memorable nights hazing was when I got visual on a handful of wolves less than 30 yards or so from me. I had spent all night chasing one pack out of town but they just kept circling back and trying to get around me and into town. After a few hours of chasing them around the edges of town I was positioned along the edge of the forest on the south side of town. I could hear the wolves with my receiver to the South of me, but moving to the Northwest. I kept hiking trying my best to stay in between them and town but this time they didn’t seem to mind my presence and the signal only continued to grow stronger. Suddenly I could see a set of eyes up on the hill above me. I pointed my spotlight in that direction to see the shadowy outline of a wolf, as well as more sets of eyes behind it. One by one sets of eyes began to pop up right behind the wolf I could see until there were four more sets of eyes as well as the individual I could see.
After extirpation, the Mexican gray wolf was diminished to about seven individuals. It is from these individuals that the current population descends and is recovering. This subspecies of gray wolf has not seen the same rate of recovery as their relatives in Yellowstone. As a result, ample research and management to support their recovery is needed. One such management action to support recovery of this population is to either recollar or collar new wolves and monitor their movements and behaviors. Captures require a thorough workup including vaccination, blood draws, and temperature and respiration monitoring.
My first few weeks were training, followed by the endless and critical task of restocking food caches. Two weeks ago I was tasked with the challenge of locating a missing wolf. I started by driving all the roads where she had been located the previous month. After not hearing her signal, I began driving all the roads in between the two cameras she had been recorded on. Finally through the static I heard a little beep, it was hard to pick up because the collar had drifted, but after adjusting the frequency I was able to get her signal to come in loud and clear. I drove around getting an idea of where she was, and finally triangulated the location down to a creek near a ranch house. It took me several days to find her, but the experience was rewarding. I am looking forward to learning every aspect of this project and sharing with you all my adventures and contributions.
At the beginning of the month, the project acquired five new volunteer techs as appeals for bringing on new volunteers were approved. Because COVID-19 precautions are still observed on this project, much of the in-field training fell onto my shoulders to bring the new volunteers up-to-speed. Our first day consisted of the simple task of gathering resources from one field station and bringing them closer to Alpine, Arizona. As we approached the field station to load up our trucks, I got a call from my supervisor informing me of a roadkill elk which was reported just out of town. The nerves I had about teaching the new techs and providing leadership began to fade. I saw how we all worked as a team to quarter the elk and load it into the truck and felt a sense of relief. Working as a crew lead or in any leadership position isn’t so much about authority, but more about helping one another rise to an occasion and complete the job at hand. Over the next few days I taught them more and more about radio telemetry, hazing techniques, checking trail cameras, and interacting with members of the public regarding the Mexican wolf recovery project. By the end of the week they all felt confident and capable working on their own to progress this project forward. I felt like I had done a good job and rest easy knowing we are always there to help each other rise to the occasion.
My roommate Maddie and I were staying at Ladder Ranch, located in Southern New Mexico, near the town of Truth or Consequences. We were there to help with a wolf capture. There was a female wolf with four pups that had been relocated to this captive facility. Now the wolves needed to be vaccinated in preparation for their anticipated release back into the wild.
We recorded the wolves pit tag numbers, temperatures and vaccine doses. I reached into the cage and grabbed the closest pup. I wrapped my left palm around the loose skin of his neck and with my right hand, gently gripped his snout. He didn’t try to bite, but instead stood there in confusion. I lifted the miniature wolf out of the cage and weighed him: 14.2 pounds. I then put him on the table and cover his face with a towel to keep him calm. I held him, while the biologists around me took his temperature and gave him shots. The pup didn’t squirm and was a fantastic patient. Once the work up was finished, we uncovered his face and lifted the little guy up. The pup lifted his head and peered around curiously, probably wondering about the purpose of this whole ordeal. He was then released back into the pen where the mom awaited the pup’s return. The wolf pup scampered down the brushy hill and disappeared into the den. I enjoyed the moment, but didn’t have time to linger too long. There were still two more pups waiting to be processed.