Enormous thanks to Wolf Conservation Center friend and supporter, Jean Ossorio, for sharing this compelling tribute to Mexican gray wolf M795.
Mexican Gray Wolf Fans Lose an Old Friend
by Jean Ossorio
Recently a friend I’ve known for almost ten years died. Although he was a good father and provider and contributed greatly to the conservation of Mexican gray wolves, he won’t be recognized with an obituary in the New York Times. He won’t be honored at a memorial service. Unlike some of the celebrated wolves of Yellowstone National Park, he never acquired a popular name and he probably won’t be remembered except by a few dedicated followers of the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project monthly updates.
My friend was the alpha male of the Paradise Pack of lobos, known by his number in the Mexican Gray Wolf Studbook: M795.
M795 was born in 2002 in the wild in eastern Arizona. As a yearling in 2003, he began dispersing from his natal pack, spending the next two years wandering alone, unable to find a mate due to the small number of eligible female wolves in the wild.
I first encountered M795 in October 2004, when I camped alone in the Williams Valley west of Alpine, Arizona. I pitched my tent in a steady rain that soon changed to snow. By morning, three inches of heavy, wet snow covered the ground and weighed down the branches of the ponderosa pines. The clearing sky glowed pink over a landscape of white.
As I packed my sleeping bag and pad in the car, I heard strange music. It had a sad quality like the calls of a mourning dove, but deeper and greatly magnified. The howls of several wolves came from the southwest, answered by a single howl from the south.
As I continued to pack my belongings, a pick-up truck drove up and stopped. The occupant, clad in jeans and a sweater, hopped out and identified himself as Jim Ashburner, the new U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officer. Upon hearing the howls, he went back to the truck, returning with a radio telemetry receiver.
He soon identified the wolves to the southwest as the breeding female of the Hawk’s Nest pack, apparently accompanied by at least one other animal. The second collared wolf, who was answering the Hawk’s Nest howls, was single lobo M795.
The musical discussion continued for almost two hours, as Jim and I listened, enchanted. We’ll never know exactly what the wolves were communicating by their lengthy exchange, but I’ve always assumed it had something to do with M795’s presence in territory the Hawk’s Nest wolves claimed as their own turf.
The following year M795 continued to wander as a single wolf. In August 2005 his signal was lost due to collar failure. Throughout the remainder of 2005 and all of 2006, M795 was considered “fate unknown,” forgotten by almost everyone except, perhaps, the members of the field team.
In October 2006 members of the field team caught and collared a male pup, mp1044, on the Ft. Apache Indian Reservation, in territory formerly occupied by the Iris Pack. They had lost track of that pack after its alpha male, the only animal in the pack with a collar, was found illegally shot. Soon after his collaring, mp1044 was spotted with four other animals during a routine radio telemetry flight. The pack was name Paradise, after a creek in the area.
The following January, during the annual helicopter survey of the reintroduced lobo population, team members documented a total of six wolves with the Paradise Pack, and managed to collar two more pack members. One of them was M795, a bachelor no more!
On Labor Day 2007 I renewed my acquaintance with M795, now called AM795, as he was the alpha male of the pack. My husband and I were doing volunteer scat collection for a graduate student in a section of the Apache National Forest used by the Paradise Pack. We had stopped to eat lunch before continuing our survey of small forest roads. Suddenly, we noticed two wolves without collars running south across the road a few hundred yards east of our location. Soon a third appeared south of the road. A fourth animal, especially large, bulky, and wearing a radio collar, crossed the road and followed the other three. Was it AM795?
A short time later, another team of volunteers, consisting of the USDA Wildlife Services representative on the field team and a student from Texas, drove up. Unlike us, they had a telemetry receiver and were able to determine that all three collared wolves in the pack were south of the road, including AM795. The student was elated to actually see one or two of the wolves, who continued running away, appearing and disappearing among the grassy hills and swales. We’ll never be certain we actually saw AM795, but we can be certain we heard his collar signal and saw four members of his pack.
In 2008, AM795’s mate and two pups were found dead of unknown causes near the den. By November, he had found a new mate. Over the next several years the Paradise pack produced a number of pups. Some pack members were also involved killing a few cows and sheep, which were grazing on public land in large numbers under permit from the Forest Service. Proactive prevention measures helped prevent some conflicts with livestock, but at least one wolf was removed from Paradise territory for killing livestock.
On April 24, 2010, AM795’s collar went dead for the second time and he was again considered “fate unknown.” Fortunately, his mate had a functioning collar. She denned and produced pups in 2011, but whose pups were they? On June 20th, AM795 was caught and fitted with a new collar. In one of the twists of fate that often occur in the reintroduction program, his mate slipped out of her collar a few days later. By the end of the year, she had been caught and collared again. The pack consisted of five wolves, the alpha pair and three pups at the end of 2011.
The pack failed to den in 2012 and 2013. In 2013 the pair was involved in killing four cows. The Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the removal of both AM795 and AF1056. On October 22 a dart fired from a helicopter injected AM795 with a dose of sedative. He was removed to captivity. AF1056 was permanently removed in a similar operation during the end of year helicopter survey on January 20, 2014.
AM795 was transferred to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, on December 17, 2013, to spend the rest of his life in captivity. Sadly, he died of a very aggressive cancer on February 15, 2014.
AM795 lived a long life for a wild wolf. During his eleven years in the wild, he spent more than three years wandering in search of a female companion, mourned the death of one mate, found another, sired several pups, and contributed to the survival of his species. I celebrate the life of my lobo friend. My sole regret is that he was not allowed to finish his life in the wild, meeting his end among the ponderosa pines and aspens, or in the brush along Paradise Creek, his body slowly returning to the earth where he led his pack and played with his pups. May you rest in peace, AM795.