Enormous thanks to Wolf Conservation Center friend and supporter, Melissa Ruszczyk, for sharing her experience working on lobo recovery in the field.
by Melissa Ruszczyk
As a past U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) intern for the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, I enjoy keeping up with the events and status of the program and wolf packs. Many may wonder how the process goes from taking a wolf in captivity and getting it into the wild. While there is a lot of preparation that I’m not involved in months prior to a release or translocation, this is my account of the big day itself and how the Half Moon Pack went from fences to freedom.
When I heard there was to be a wolf pack release in Arizona and a translocation (meaning they’ve had previous wild experience) in New Mexico this spring, I contacted project personnel to see if they needed any help. One week later I found myself at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where USFWS houses Mexican wolves in a remote prerelease captive facility. There the wolves have little contact with people and are not viewed by public in efforts to keep them from becoming habituated to humans, and to promote pack structure and wild behavior. Wolves F1108 (a pregnant adult female) and M1133 (an adult male), newly dubbed the Half Moon Pack, had successfully bred and were up for translocation into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. Prior to my arrival, USFWS personnel had scouted potential translocation sites in the Gila Wilderness with certain criteria such as high prey density and water availability, and good distances from human settlements and ranches. Once McKenna Park was chosen as the site, a mesh pen was constructed to temporarily hold the wolves. This type of pen allows for the wolves to chew through the mesh and eventually release themselves. Although the wolves can chew through at any time, they were translocated very close to F1108’s due date in hopes she would give birth inside the pen and the pack would establish territory in the area once they chewed out.
The evening following my arrival, a convoy of vehicles including USFWS personnel and interns, Ladder Ranch personnel, volunteers, and the film crew for “The Last Pack: A Return to the Wild”, a documentary about restoring Mexican wolves into the wild, arrived at the facility to capture the wolf pair and prepare them for transportation and release the next day.
After a briefing of capture methods, safety measures and precautions, the wolves were captured and muzzled in their enclosure without sedation. Everyone worked together quickly and calmly to administer subcutaneous fluids, vaccines, and fit each wolf with a radio collar for future monitoring by aerial and ground telemetry, and in the male’s case, GPS location downloads. Once the wolves were both crated in large Vari-kennels, they were escorted by USFWS personnel Sherry Barrett (Recovery Coordinator), Maggie Dwire (Assistant Recovery Coordinator), Colby Gardner (Wildlife Biologist), Susan Dicks, DVM (Wildlife Biologist), Julia Smith (Intern), and myself through the dark about five hours away to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument where they would be packed into McKenna Park the next morning on mules.
Upon daybreak we met with Nick Smith, a former Mexican Wolf Biologist for New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and Jim Brooks, USFWS Supervisory Fish Biologist, who would be leading the mules into McKenna Park, about an 18 mile journey. Susan and Julia would be the first two personnel riding in to camp and begin daily monitoring of the Half Moon Pack after they were released into the mesh pen. As the mules were prepped with camping gear and food, the wolves needed to be prepped for the mule ride. We brought their crates into a barn where we could give the wolves subcutaneous fluids again and transfer them from crates to panniers which would be strapped to the sides of a specially trained mule, Rooster. Shortly after, Nick and Jim arrived with seven mules. Susan and Julia were fitted for their saddles, the wolves were loaded on, we said our goodbyes, and the Half Moon Pack was off to McKenna Park.
As reported from Susan and Julia, the wolves were checked on periodically and did well along the way. When they reached the pen, the food, water, and panniers were set inside with ropes tied to the pannier doors so they could be pulled open from the outside of the pen. Once opened, the wolves came out and ran around the pen exploring their new surrounding and smells. Susan, Julia, Nick, and Jim left quickly to reduce their exposure to the wolves and let them get settled. A few miles away was a U.S. Forest Service cabin where Susan and Julia camped and hiked out from each day to obtain radio signals using telemetry as the method to monitor the wolves.
While Susan and Julia were monitoring Half Moon, I spent the next few days in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area of New Mexico monitoring other established packs. After three days, it was time to trade out with Susan and Julia and also bring in more food and water for the wolves. It was my turn to ride the18 miles in on a mule and joining me was USFWS Wildlife Biologist Melissa Kreutzian for a five day stint of monitoring F1108 and M1133. The day after Nick brought us in, he packed out Susan and Julia.
Melissa and I followed Susan and Julia’s routine of hiking up a steep slope of switchbacks for about forty minutes until reaching an area where we could receive signals from F1108’s collar. However, we would have to hike another hour before we could pick up signals from M1133 even though they were in the pen together. From where we could hear both signals in McKenna Park, the pen was still approximately another forty-five minute hike away. We stayed in the McKenna Park area for a few hours before taking another listen for their signals to check if they had changed or not. Upon confirmation of no change, we hiked back to the cabin nestled in a canyon along the confluence of the West Fork of the Gila River and White Creek. For two days we hiked up the mountain, crossed some streams, and made it to McKenna Park without any change in routine. The daily hikes included serene mountain vistas, herds of elk running through the forest, bear tracks along the path, and the occasional horned lizard. However, on the third day when we got to McKenna Park, the receiver was silent. Melissa and I looked at each other bewildered. I hopped up on a fallen log to increase my height in case the wolves’ collars were blocked by something… still nothing. I gave it a minute, walked around and listened again. Nothing. We decided it was time to hike to the pen and do a visual observation to see what was going on. Along the way we discussed potential reasons for no signals to be coming through the receiver. Of course, the wolves chewing out was the first thought but other ideas had come to mind such as equipment failure of the collars or the telemetry receiver, or the wolves digging a den and their signals being blocked by the surrounding dirt. About forty-five minutes later we approached the pen slowly while continuing to check the receiver for signals and looking through binoculars for any signs of movement. After we were certain the wolves were not in the pen, we walked around the outside and found a hole in the mesh where they had chewed through. The Half Moon Pack was fully wild now! We walked around looking for tracks and recording data about what we had found so we could report back to the rest of the team later that evening via satellite phone. On our two hour hike back to the cabin we tried listening for the wolves with our telemetry in hopes of hearing them somewhere in the area but we never did. Back at camp we contacted both the Albuquerque, NM and Alpine, AZ offices to share the news. At dinner that night we toasted our camp mugs by our fire pit and sent well wishes for the new chapter in the lives of the Half Moon Pack.
The next seven days were filled with heavy monitoring of the pack by aerial and ground telemetry and also by the location downloads from the male’s collar to computers every few days. Right away M1133 was on the move travelling further and further away from McKenna Park and F1108, who had stayed near the release site. By the end of the week he had trekked over 75 miles from McKenna Park and was out of the recovery area in poor habitat, and surrounded by human settlements, major roadways, and very little natural prey thus creating a dangerous situation for his survival. Consequently, a week after chewing through the mesh, a decision was made to recapture M1133 and bring him back to Sevilleta NWR. As for F1108, she stayed near the translocation area and is believed to be denning. She is still being monitored by project personnel and efforts have been put forth to assist her with food so she can sustain herself and also the pups. Even though M1133 did not remain in the wild, his genetics will be passed on into the wild population by the pups we hope F1108 will successfully raise.
The experience of translocating F1108 and M1133 into the wild is one that I’ll forever cherish and be thankful to be a part of. Even though things did not go as planned, it’s reassuring to know that one more wolf is on the landscape and in a pristine habitat that’s suitable for her survival and the wellbeing of her pups. We have high hopes for F1108 and the future generations of Mexican gray wolves she will contribute to the wild population.