PINETOP — Residents of Alpine and Springerville, Reserve, N.M., and surrounding areas may notice several daily flights of a low-flying helicopter over their communities in late January and early February as biologists working on the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project conduct their annual wolf population survey and capture.
The reintroduction project is a multi-agency cooperative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service, USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services and White Mountain Apache Tribe.
“Our biologists and wildlife managers, and our state, tribal and stakeholder partners are working diligently to bring the Mexican wolf population back to a healthy level on a working landscape,” said Southwest Regional Director Dr. Benjamin Tuggle. “Conducting this annual wolf count provides us a good indication of where we are in the reintroduction process.”
The aerial operation is scheduled to run Jan. 23 to Feb. 4, weather permitting. Survey flights will occur in the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, focusing primarily in forested areas wolves currently occupy.
“Because we get calls and questions on this each year, we want the public to be aware of these daily flights, and that there’s no cause for concern,” said Kent Laudon, a wolf biologist and the wolf Interagency Field Team Leader. “This annual survey and capture operation is quite important in determining and evaluating the overall population status of Mexican wolves.”
As part of the survey operation, biologists will attempt to capture some of the wild-born wolves in the populations that have not yet been fitted with a radio telemetry collar, those having a collar in need of replacement, or any wolf appearing to be sick or injured.
Captures are made with an anesthetizing dart operated by a biologist or veterinarian aboard the helicopter. The wolf is immobilized and brought by air to a staging area for processing and any necessary veterinary care. It is then returned to the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area and released.
“The data we acquire during these helicopter operations provides us with consistent minimum population counts. Each year we improve our methods to more accurately count the population,” said John Oakleaf, Mexican wolf field projects coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “In addition, the radio-collared wolves captured during the operation provide us a host of biological information such as the rates of survival, reproduction, dispersal, and pack formation that are critical to understanding Mexican wolf biology and documenting the population numbers.”