By Reece Alvarez
Seven-week-old pup Nikai is the newest addition to the wolf pack at South Salem’s Wolf Conservation Center and will likely join three other wolves as part of the ambassador pack, touring and educating the public on the need to foster and protect wolves. (Reece Alvarez)
South Salem’s Wolf Conservation Center has a lot to howl about this spring with two new additions to its wolf pack — a wolf pup named Nikai and a new facility that will expand the center’s ability to care for wolves and operate as a leading facility for the conservation and reintroduction of wolves.
The seven-week-old wolf pup’s name — Nikai — means little saint, one who wanders and has come to the WCC from a private facility in Nevada.
He will join Atka, Alawa and Zephyr when he matures as an ambassador wolf, aiding the WCC on educational missions as it educates and familiarizes the public with wolves.
In fact, Nikai comes from the same parents as Alawa and Zephyr, who also came to the WCC from Nevada — making the trio siblings.
The 10-pound-pup has only been at the center for a few weeks, but has already been showing promise as an ambassador wolf.
Rebecca Bose, Nikai’s has been the WCC’s curator since 2006 and has been Nikai’s predominant caretaker in the few weeks he has been at the center. (Reece Alvarez)
“Not only is he very comfortable with people so far, and pretty good on a leash, which amazes me, but he is also doing very well in the van,” WCC Executive Director Maggie Howell said. “It is very possible one day he will embrace the role of a traveling ambassador like Atka.”
While many animals are fearful of cameras, equating the lens to the single eye of a predator, Nikai has been at ease around humans, Ms. Howell said, even howling when prompted.
Nikai’s lineage is a mix of gray wolf subspecies, primarily Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolf, which traditionally populated parts of the western U.S., much of western Canada, and all of Alaska. Because Nikai is not one of the critically endangered wolf species, such as the WCC’s red wolves and Mexican gray wolves, he will remain at the center for his lifespan and help teach the public about the vital role wolves play in ecosystems and the current plight of the species.
Ms. Howell expects Nikai will be able to start interacting with the public this summer after he has received all of his vaccinations.
A den of their own
The WCC was founded in 1996 by Hélène Grimaud and J. Henry Fair, and thanks to Ms. Grimaud (who formerly owned the land) the center was able to purchase its leased land in April, along with a residential building, which together will give the organization the security and stability it needs to implement its mission for decades to come.
In April the WCC officially purchased the land it has been leasing from Hélène Grimaud and now owns the land and residential structure, which will be turned into a central office and wolf care facility. (Courtesy of Maggie Howell)
“Our educational reach is growing, participation in the recovery programs and mobilizing support via social media and education programs —we are doing more than ever, yet we’ve been working out of a trailer for years,” Ms. Howell said. “This is our dream and now we are allowed to dream.”
The new facility will serve as a proper office building for the WCC, as well as an animal care center where the staff can tend to sick wolves and perform veterinary procedures.
The purchasing of the land brings to a close the center’s struggles to build a home of its own to supports it mission, and now frees up energy for the national battle it fights to preserve critically endangered wolf species and reintroduce them into their native ranges.
Expanding the mission
The center, which now has 20 wolves, began as an all-volunteer organization and has grown to a small full-time staff and an extensive “family” of volunteers — well over a dozen, Ms. Howell said.
Ms. Howell joined the WCC in 2005 and together with curator Rebecca Bose comprise half of the center’s full-time paid staff.
This year the WCC helped form the Northeast Wolf Coalition, where they are among several groups and scientific advisers trying to help recover lost wolf species in the Northeast, which Ms. Howell said is as important a mission as ever as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering removing gray wolves from the endangered species list.
“We are trying to do everything we can to help recovery in the Northeast,” she said. “There is an enormous amount of habitat and prey base.”
The Adirondack Mountains, Maine, and parts of Vermont and New Hampshire are suitable locations for wolf reintroduction, she said.
Nikai (pronounced nick-i) has shown promise as an ambassador wolf — handling car rides and human interaction well, according to Maggie Howell, WCC director. He even produces a puppy howl when prompted by guests. (Reece Alvarez)
Wild wolves are naturally repopulating their former habitats with help from organizations like the WCC, and in the 21st Century have made notable inroads into new territories — even New York. While not officially recognized as a wolf habitat, New York saw a wolf wander through as recently as 2007 — making it as far south as Massachusetts from Canada.
This past February a wolf stepped paws into Iowa for the first time in more than 90 years, Ms. Howell said.
Often these excursions lead to conflict for the wolves as local populations who have neither the regulations nor conservation efforts to preserve and protect the species hunt the wolves, Ms. Howell said.
“We are tracking these epic treks — conservation should also be done on an epic level, a continental level,” she said.
To help expand the continental effort the WCC has expanded on its program, not only continuing to reintroduce wolf populations in the western half of the country, but now investigating ways to revive northeastern populations — not only for the ecological role wolves play as a keystone species (species that perform critical roles in the vitality of ecological systems) but also economically.
According to Ms. Howell, wildlife watching in New York state was a $4.1 billion industry in 2011.
“It is a huge money maker,” she said. “Imagine if we could watch wolves too.”