The Mexican gray wolf or “lobo” is America’s most endangered gray wolf. At last count only 83 remained in the wild and over 250 lobos live in captivity. The captive lobo population is currently hosted by a network of organizations in both the United States and Mexico participating in the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan (MWSSP). A Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a breeding and management program designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of captive-based animal populations. The primary goal for the MWSSP is to breed wolves for maximum genetic integrity for reintroduction into both the United States and Mexico. Organizations participating in the MWSSP are tasked with housing and caring for the wolves, collaborating in the captive breeding program, sharing observations and recommendations for release, and engaging in the sometimes unusual and often controversial efforts to save the species. This spring the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) will be taking extraordinary measures that the MWSSP deems necessary in order to aid the recovery of this critically endangered wolf.
In order to maintain genetic diversity within the Mexican wolf population, the MWSSP management group determines which captive lobos will be permitted to breed by using software developed for the population management of endangered species. Wolf unions are chosen based on the genetic “value” of the individuals and the benefits their potential offspring would contribute to the diversity of their rare species. The ideal pairings have the lowest inbreeding coefficient and produce offspring that will best enhance the wild lobo gene pool. Because the entire existing Mexican wolf population descended from just seven founders rescued from extinction, genetic health is the primary consideration governing all wolf pairings.
Mexican wolf F749 is among twelve lobos who reside off-exhibit at the WCC and she is the most genetically valuable individual in the program. She’s one of the most prolific wolves in the MWSSP as well. Sadly, F749 has lost several litters in her 12 years, and the cause remains unknown. When left in her care, only 2 of her last 19 pups have survived. Due to F749′s poor history, the WCC was directed to pull all potential pups within 18 hours after their birth so they can be hand reared and eventually placed with captive lobo foster parents who have successfully raised pups of their own. This will not be the first time the WCC has been directed to take this extraordinary measure. In 2013 we were instructed to follow the same protocol and removed F749′s 2 newborn sons. This was a sensitive subject that promoted a good amount of discussion among our staff, volunteers, and supporters.
The WCC would like to assure everybody that we considered all the ramifications of removing the genetically vital pups as soon as we were informed that it had to be done. In no way was this a decision that was taken lightly by any of our staff and volunteers. Nor will this measure be brushed off this year when we follow the same protocol. Knowing that her two sons born last year are still alive, however, is certainly reassuring.
To best prepare for the weeks to come, we gave F749 an ultrasound to see if she is pregnant, and if so, determine the size of her potential litter. Thanks to Dr. Emilia Wood from Quarry Ridge Animal Hospital, we were able to confirm that F749 is carrying at least 4 pups, all with strong heartbeats. Next we’ll discuss with the MWSSP management group the surrogate options so we can best prepare.
Participating in animal husbandry, and especially species survival, means making tough decisions. The WCC feels it’s important that our supporters know about such decisions, which is why we are making the process public and providing an unlimited number of webcam viewers to enter the private lives of this elusive pair. It’s our hope that our candor increases awareness of this critically endangered wolf species, our efforts to recover them, and promotes meaningful dialog among our supporters and within the network of facilities participating in the MWSSP.
In coming weeks we hope to announce the birth of robust litter from F749, but it will be bitter sweet knowing that it’s extremely unlikely that she’ll a part of their development. It takes tough and sometimes heart breaking decisions to preserve a species. We can only hope that F749 and M804 realize on some level, that they are a part of something much larger than their pack. They are essential to the recovery of their imperiled species.