By Mike Di Paola
Well before Sandy wreaked havoc on the Atlantic coast, a smaller storm raised concern at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York.
“We were a little worried,” Maggie Howell confessed. “It would have been a long day for us if a tree took down a fence and wolves were running around Westchester.”
Howell, the center’s managing director, was only half- joking. The sanctuary-cum-breeding facility is home to 25 wolves, most of them out of sight — and all of them safely behind fences — within these 27 acres of woodland.
“That’s a challenge in itself, taking care of animals we rarely see,” Howell said.
Some of the wolves are candidates for release in the wild, including 16 Mexican grays that could find a home in the southwest, where the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been reintroducing the species since 1998. Six red wolves have similar opportunities for release in North Carolina.
These two are tiny groups in the wild. By contrast, the gray wolf was driven to near extinction in the lower 48, but today numbers about 4,000 in the Great Lakes region and fewer than 1,800 in the Rocky Mountain states
Trying to re-establish a viable wolf population is very difficult, and the South Salem organization has had its share of disappointment. Two Mexican grays, released in 2006 and 2008, were illegally shot and killed just months after leaving here. That was devastating, but Howell still derives some inspiration from the effort.
“I still daydream about what it must have been like for a wolf that lived in Westchester behind fence lines, and suddenly to be in the southwest, with no fences, no people, and then to see his very first elk and pursue it.”
It’s not shocking that the wolves met their doom at the end of a gun. There are an estimated 50 Mexican gray wolves in the wild today (and 300 or so living in facilities like this one). Dozens of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico have been illegally shot since the reintroduction of the species began.
The red-wolf population is similarly decimated. There are about 100 of the species in the wild in North Carolina, with approximately 200 in breeding facilities.
Like their cousins in the southwest, this population struggles to survive natural threats — disease, starvation, forest fires — as well as trigger-happy humans. At least three red wolves were illegally killed in the past two months.
There was more heartbreak this spring at the center when eight newborn pups died at barely a month old, cause of death unknown.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster for us and for our supporters,” many of whom watched the pups’ short lives via a webcam set up in the wolves’ den. The plan had been to place pups in a litter of the same age in the wild, and the center hopes to try again next spring.
The good news is that wolf populations are rebounding somewhat in other areas, and paradoxically that’s also the bad news. The gray wolf was removed from the endangered list in some places in the midwest and west this year, which incited states to allow hunting them.
In Wyoming, with only about 225 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park, the state will permit hunters to legally kill more than 50 of them this year. Varying degrees of protection have been removed for wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well, and conservation groups such as WildEarth Guardians are challenging the weakening protections in courts.
Some of the older South Salem wolves will never be released, having spent too much of their lives behind fences. They can expect a decent retirement here, at least.
“We want to make sure that they’re given at least a peaceful, non-zoo existence even though it’s in captivity,” Howell said.
The most accessible of the wolves here is Atka, an Arctic gray who is the lupine face of the center. Atka is one of three “ambassador” wolves on site, the principal attractions for the many school field-trips here.
Atka also goes on the road to raise awareness — and funds — including occasional jaunts to New York City. He was last seen at the American Museum of Natural History. As Howell told me all this, Atka sauntered over to the cyclone fence to give us a closer look at his magnificence.
“He is such a diva,” Howell said. “He blows my mind.”
On cue, Atka let loose with a keening, soulful howl. I’m anthropomorphising, I know, but to me his plaintive wail sounds like the lament of a species in trouble.
You can help the Wolf Conservation Center with an online donation, and watch the wolves from the safety of webcams.