“We are really excited that there are 131 wolves,” said Maggie Howell when asked about the US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) announcement regarding the results of the 2018 Mexican wolf survey, which tracks the number of Mexican wolves in the United States. Howell works with the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC), a facility that has participated in the Mexican wolf species survival plan for the last 16 years, housing and breeding endangered wolves.
That number, 131, is a benchmark and is likely to be included in virtually every story about Mexican wolves in the coming year. It’s a 12 percent increase over the 2017 number of 114 wolves living in the wild in the US. (In addition to the 131 wolves distributed across Arizona and New Mexico, an estimated 30 of these endangered animals live in Mexico.) But there were also 21 wolf mortalities in the US during the 2018 calendar year, up from 12 the prior year. This high number of wolf deaths is a reminder of the ongoing challenges of implementing the recovery plan for the Mexican wolf, the rarest gray wolf subspecies in North America.
Last year I wrote about a yearling male wolf known as M1676 who was collared in January 2018. He is one of the 21 wolves who did not survive the year. The last time I saw M1676 was in a brief video of his release — on the day of his capture/collar — in the wilderness near his birth pack’s territory. He bolted from the crate, but didn’t appear to be bothered by the new collar around his neck. It weighed about a pound and was wrapped in pink duct tape decorated with swaying palm trees, making it easier for the field team to identify him from a distance or in a remote camera photograph.
A couple of weeks later FWS published their monthly update on the status of Mexican wolves for January 2018 and M1676 was back traveling with his family, the Bear Wallow Pack. The pack also included the alpha or breeding pair, and a female pup F1683. They were located in their traditional territory, the east central portion of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Occasionally, they slipped onto the San Carlos Apache Reservation — their exact locations on the reservation were not published. And so it went the first few months as I watched to see if M1676 was making a move to disperse from his family.
In April the four wolves were still together and the alpha female’s signal indicated she was likely preparing a den for a new litter of pups.
And then tragedy struck. In FWS’s May update, the alpha female was reported dead. No new pups were mentioned, and there was no word on the cause of her death. The other three wolves — AM1338 (the alpha male), M1676, and F1683 — scattered.
Before M1676 struck out on his own, I had asked Maggie Dwire, the deputy Mexican wolf coordinator with FWS, what causes a wolf to leave its pack behind. Hormones and family dynamics are two reasons — sometimes, she said, they are ready to leave, other times they may be pushed out. For the Bear Wallow Pack the trauma of the alpha female’s death was surely a determining factor as the remaining wolves went separate ways.
M1676 had spent the first two years of his life traveling and hunting with a stable family in a well-established territory. The Bear Wallow Pack had no history of killing livestock or interacting with humans or dogs. He had been with the pack long enough to experience the birth and rearing of a new litter of pups and, according to Dwire, “[there is] a big social benefit from helping Mom and Dad.”
He was ready to part with the pack. Dwire says a single wolf can survive on its own just fine: hunting smaller prey like rabbits, scavenging carcasses killed by other animals, sometimes even chasing and bringing down a small deer or elk.
In July, M1676 traveled north out of the Apache-Sitgreaves into the Coconino National Forest. Interstate 40 bisects the Coconino and is the hard and fast northern limit of the Mexican wolf recovery area — 6,850-square-miles of land spanning eastern Arizona and western New Mexico designated for recovery of the species. Wolves that cross the highway are immediately captured and relocated back in the defined wolf recovery area. Flagstaff, Arizona, surrounded by the Coconino Forest, straddles I-40. To the north about 80 miles is Grand Canyon National Park, off-limits to Mexican wolves. But it’s not because the wolves can’t survive there or because they didn’t inhabit the area at one time.
Emily Renn with the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project says by email, “We definitely know that wolves historically inhabited the Grand Canyon region, but most of what we know is only from hunting records (after wolf populations were likely already severely depleted by hunters/trappers) … There never was a good natural history study of Mexican wolves before they were heavily persecuted.”
On Labor Day weekend my husband and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. It was a coincidence that M1676 happened to be so close by. When I booked reservations a year earlier, the yearling was running and hunting with his family over a hundred miles south, un-collared and unknown to FWS.
The first night of our trip we stayed in Flagstaff. The next morning was Monday, the day that, every-other-week, the FWS’s wolf location map is updated. I checked my cellphone to find M1676’s coordinates. He was still in the Coconino Forest, south of I-40 less than 50 miles away. Wolves are natural travelers, able to cover 30 miles or more in a day so there was no telling where he was at the moment I printed the barely-legible map on the hotel’s rickety printer.
Renn and her husband met us for breakfast and we talked wolves over coffee and eggs. They had created a map (see above) that tracked 1676’s journey north. His path wasn’t common, but a few other wolves had done it. Before leaving Flagstaff, we stopped to take a picture of a howling Mexican wolf, part of The Sound of Flight mural painted on an outside wall of the Orpheum Theater. It was the only wolf I would see during my trip across New Mexico and Arizona.
Two weeks later, back at home, I checked on M1676’s location, but he did not appear on the map. I learned that he had been found dead in September after his collar sent out a mortality signal. I requested a copy of his necropsy report, but have not yet gotten a response. It’s likely that his death is under investigation (over 55 percent of Mexican wolf deaths through 2017 were illegal mortalities, meaning the deaths were caused by illegal shooting or trapping activity) and no information will be released until the investigation is complete.
So, why did M1676 head north? There is no real answer to that question. No other collared wolves were reported in the area where he was found. One possible clue was revealed in a report of a dead cow in Coconino County, on a ranch a few miles north of the national forest border and less than ten miles from M1676’s location a few weeks later. When the field team investigated, they found a long-dead cow — not killed by wolves — that had been scavenged by wolves, based on nearby paw prints. The field team placed a remote camera at the site and captured a photo of an un-collared wolf. Maybe M1676 was traveling with or on the trail of this unknown wolf.
When I started tracking M1676 last January, my hope was that he would find a mate and establish a territory of his own and that by this spring the pair might be preparing for a litter of pups. It didn’t happen. But the two other Bear Wallow wolves, M1338 and F1563, remain on the landscape. Both were reported to be traveling with potential mates in February. Perhaps one or both of them will contribute pups to the Mexican wolf population this year.
The 2018 count of 131 wolves was a hopeful sign for the 21-year effort to restore Mexican wolves to their historical habitat, but as Maggie Howell said on WCC’s website, “you can’t measure recovery by numbers alone. We have a long way to go until this keystone species is recovered.”