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Wild at Heart: The Case of the Mexican Wolf

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The Mexican wolf population in the Southwest sees a high degree of research, observation and management. Some people are worried it’s making the endangered animals less fearful of humans

By Will Grant

A Mexican wolf. Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative.
The Mexican wolf. Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative.

Like almost everyone else in the Southwest, rancher Nelson Shirley wants wolves to be scared of humans. Life —
including raising cattle — is easier if wolves have a healthy fear of humans, he says. Shirley runs cattle on about 320,000 acres in western New Mexico, and it’s all wolf country, home to as many as seven packs last year.
Last spring, to prevent one pack from eating Shirley’s cattle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with restoring the endangered Mexican wolf to the Southwest, fed the wolves logs of caked horse meat from Mexico, called carnivore logs. Shirley welcomes the relief from coursing wolves around his cattle, but doesn’t want the wolves to get too comfortable on the government dole.
“There’s pluses and minuses to this whole thing,” Shirley says. “I think if you put collars on them, they’ll be somewhat more habituated to humans. If you go to den sites and feed them, they’re probably going to be more habituated. The alternative, though, is they could eat livestock.”
Given the status of Mexican wolves — the subspecies was reintroduced to the area in 1998, and federal wolf managers say the current estimate of 97 individuals is but a start to full recovery — the animals are on the tranquilizer-dart end of intense research and management. Radio collars, health exams, relocations, supplemental feeding — all involve a degree of wolf-human interaction, sometimes as indirect as the smell of truck exhaust wafting over a hillside, sometimes as direct as carnivore logs.
“We do a lot of things to avoid that interaction,” says John Oakleaf, a wolf biologist with Fish and Wildlife. “We want them to stay away from humans.”
Mike Phillips, a wolf biologist and director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, has been working with wolves for 30-plus years. He was instrumental in reintroducing red wolves in the Southeast and gray wolves in the northern Rockies. He now oversees wolf operations at Ladder Ranch, Ted Turner’s 156,000-acre Gila County spread that’s been raising captive wolves for federal reintroduction for the past 18 years. Mexican wolves, he says, need a lot of attention.
“Especially with large mammals, the beginning of restoration requires that you come into contact with the animals,” Phillips says. A high level of management is necessary because the population is small, which means that every individual wolf is considered high-value. Unlike wolves in the northern Rockies, Phillips says, the Mexican wolf population wasn’t able to “take off like a rocket.” Also, given the small gene pool — all Mexican wolves stem from a seed pack of seven individuals — managers have moved wolves to diversify genetics.
Although habituation, as of yet, does not appear to be a pressing problem, a handful of rogue wolves have generated rumblings that wildlife managers are too hands-on with Mexican wolves. And the wolf most clearly responsible for those rumblings was a captive-bred wolf, dead now, called Male 1130.

An Arizona Game and Fish official releases a collared Mexican Wolf that is part of the Hoodoo pack. Photo by George Andrejko, AZ Game and Fish Department.
An Arizona Game and Fish official releases a collared Mexican Wolf that is part of the Hoodoo pack. Photo by George Andrejko, AZ Game and Fish Department.

Wolf 1130 was born at the California Wolf Center in 2008. For seven years, he lived in various captive facilities, including Ladder Ranch. He probably spent as much time in the backs of pickup trucks as any wolf in the Southwest and ate as much human-provided food as any.
A few months before Fish and Wildlife planned on releasing 1130, they trapped a wild female wolf from Arizona and put the two in a pen together, hoping they’d pair up and breed. Biologists saw the two in what’s called a “copulatory tie” and reckoned the female pregnant. Both wolves were released in eastern Arizona last April.
When 1130 hit the ground, he left the female and headed east to New Mexico. Twenty-seven days later he confronted a dog and the owner of a mobile home in Catron County. He spent half an hour circling the home before leaving, undeterred by attempts to scare him away. The next day, not far from the mobile home, a man fishing looked up to see 1130 staring at him from the opposite bank. A few hours later, a young girl thought she saw a coyote among her family’s cattle and loped out to the pasture only to come upon a wolf. Her horse spooked, jerked the reins out of her hand and ran home. The wolf’s final straw came that afternoon when a 2-year-old child reported to his mother that the neighbor’s dog, which was actually 1130, was at the house.
The next day Fish and Wildlife issued a dead-or-alive order for 1130. Later that day, a USDA Wildlife Services agent shot and killed him. He lived 29 days in the wild.
“If I had to pin it on one thing, I would say he was too old,” Phillips says. “Your best bet is to release fairly young wolves that are, ideally, reproductively experienced. I’ve also said that if I was the one making the decisions, I would have let 1130 go.”

“It’s a mistake to ... expect every wolf to take extra steps to avoid encounters with humans. Some wolves are just naturally curious.” Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative.
“It’s a mistake to … expect every wolf to take extra steps to avoid encounters with humans. Some wolves are just naturally curious.” Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative.

A lot of time and money had been spent on 1130: Setting him up with his wild-born girlfriend cost money and man-hours. He racked up a lengthy feed bill that even included live prey. He graduated from a taste-aversion program, a feeding regimen intended to convince wolves that cow meat makes them sick.
Habituation in wildlife occurs on a spectrum. The far end of that spectrum — having little fear of humans — occurs as deer in backyard gardens and elk on golf courses. In Yellowstone National Park, wolves have learned that parka-clad tourists or the slam of a car door poses no threat to them, as biologists expected.
There was one big surprise, though. “The observability of gray wolves in the park shocked us,” Phillips told the New Mexico State Game Commission last fall. “We never expected that they would be so observable. Now other than ungulates, bison and elk probably, gray wolves are the most observable large mammal in the park.”
Phillips saw other forms of habituation in red wolves in the Southeast. As part of the recovery, he had the job of feeding a female captive wolf carnivore logs. “We used these old military jeeps to feed her and pretty soon she was standing in the middle of the road waiting for us,” Phillips says. “We didn’t think that was a very good thing so we started feeding the logs to her from the air.”

During helicopter population surveys, the Game and Fish department will capture and recollar wolves for tracking. Photo by George Andrejko, AZ Game and Fish Department.
During helicopter population surveys, the Game and Fish department will capture and recollar wolves for tracking. Photo by George Andrejko, AZ Game and Fish Department.

Though habituation hasn’t proved to be an extensive issue with Mexican wolves, it’s something everyone wants to avoid. Part of maintaining a healthy respect for humans in wolves involves proactive measures, like motion-detector noisemakers or electric fencing.
Craig Miller, a senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife, has been promoting such practices since the mid-1990s. Defenders of Wildlife has been critical to addressing wolf problems in the Southwest and northern Rockies through outreach and education, by funding livestock-loss reimbursement programs, and even hiring range riders to watch ranchers’ cattle more closely. As far as outliers like 1130, Miller says the behavior might just be the nature of the animal.
“One of the reasons we have dogs today as man’s best friend is because of wolves who had certain personalities that allowed them to be comfortable around humans,” he says. “I think it’s a mistake to go to a wild place and expect every wolf to take extra steps to avoid encounters with humans. Some wolves are just naturally curious and that can be misinterpreted as habituated.”
Miller acknowledges that a high level of hands-on management isn’t ideal for the individual wolves, but the federal government is obligated to restore the population under the direction of the Endangered Species Act.
Nelson Shirley sees a balancing act that lies in the hands of Fish and Wildlife Service. Monitoring the wolves allows him to better manage his cattle. Feeding carnivore logs eases wolves’ pressure on his cattle. But, like most people, he wants the wildlife to stay wild.
“One side of me says let the wolves be wild, why run around putting collars on them?” Shirley says. “On the other hand, if they don’t have collars on and we don’t know where they are, we can’t move our cattle out of there or be more vigilant or whatever the situation may need.”

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