By Reece Alvarez
Within 24 hours of being born on May 8, the two new Mexican gray wolf pups at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) were airborne on a flight headed to Indiana.
The birth of the two male pups was a milestone for the WCC in South Salem in its long-standing participation in a national effort to reintroduce and repopulate endangered wild wolf species, particularly the Mexican gray wolf and red wolf. Maggie Howell, executive director of the WCC, said the birth of the two pups came with some unusual circumstances, including increased candor about the removal of the pups from their parents and being flown halfway across the country within hours of being born.
“We want our supporters to know what it takes to save a species,” Ms. Howell said. “This is not at all normal in the program. People are involved as little as possible in terms of raising and taking care of them because many of the wolves are candidates for release. They need to have a natural fear of people to survive.”
While some wolves from the WCC have names like Atka or Zephyr, those wolves are often the ambassador wolves the WCC uses to engage and educate the public. F749, the mother of the two pups, has an alphanumeric name, however.
“F749 is extremely valuable to the recovery program due to her genetics,” Ms. Howell said.
At one time the entire planetary population of Mexican gray wolves was limited to a gene pool of seven wolves held in captivity, she said.
Wolves such as F749 are carefully selected for their genetic traits, and the WCC works with other wolf conservation organizations to determine suitable pairs of wolves with the “lowest inbreeding coefficient,” giving their offspring the best chance to enhance the wild gene pool, she said. F749 was named in a scientific manner to emphasize her scientific value, she said.
The rebuilding of a species is as complicated as it sounds, and F749 plays a key role in the process.
Special provisions had to be made for the newcomers, as past litters have proved unsuccessful, with none of the pups from the previous litter surviving.
“Last year we welcomed eight pups,” Ms. Howell said, “then one by one they all died.”
The reasons for the deaths are not entirely known, as part of the WCC’s goal is to allow the wolves to live and develop as naturally as possible; the animals are observed at a distance and via cameras.
With last year’s failed litter and F749 approaching the end of her breeding years, the WCC devised a strategy to relocate the pups to the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanical Garden in Evansville, Ind. There, a pair of previously successful gray wolf parents were selected as foster parents because their past success gives them the best chance of raising the new pups.
“People were upset we removed the pups around Mother’s Day,” Ms. Howell said. “It’s kind of tough and I totally get it, but this has given us an opportunity to explain to people the extreme measures we have to do to save them.”
Ms. Howell said such a teaching moment provides an excellent entryway into such topics as starting to count species as endangered while their numbers are in the thousands rather than the hundreds or fewer, she said.
Challenges for repopulating
These are not F749’s first pups — a number of her offspring have been successfully re-introduced into the wild, and currently Mexican gray wolves with her genes roam free in New Mexico or Arizona, Ms. Howell said. But not all of the stories have happy endings — two WCC wolves released into the wild in 2006 and 2008 in New Mexico and Arizona were killed only a few months after their release, she said.
And as recently as January, the illegal killing of wolves in the Southwest has been reported, with a Wildlife Services agent being investigated for reportedly shooting and killing a gray wolf in New Mexico. Ms. Howell said that while areas of New Mexico and Arizona are the native homelands for the Mexican gray wolf, there is substantial opposition to their reintroduction, particularly from the agricultural community.
“We have to continue,” she said. “We can’t stop just because a couple of criminals are killing endangered species. Our resolve remains strong to get these animals back on their ancestral homes in the wild. What we have to do is have stronger enforcement of these laws.”
The WCC is likely an outlier in having two of its released wolves illegally killed, Ms. Howell said, and because of the human intervention, F749’s pups will not be eligible candidates for being released into the wild. But if they are successful in breeding in captivity, their offspring will contain the vital genetic information that, if successfully released into the wild, will help to rebuild a native population of Mexican gray wolves.
Ms. Howell estimated that there are currently about 75 wild Mexican gray wolves and nearly 300 in captivity. This year there have already been two successful wolf releases into the wild by other conservation organizations, making this a very good year for wild wolves.
“It is amazing news,” she said. “Prior to that there hasn’t been a successful release since 2008. When an animal is released it is a very great feeling, but it hurts on a whole other level; it is another thing you have to worry about.”