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Saving Endangered Wolves Via Artificial Insemination

Mexican gray wolves F1143 (Rosa) with her daughter f1505 (Trumpet)

The Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for two critically endangered wolf species, the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). The Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf are among the rarest mammals in North America; both species were at one time extinct in the wild.

An SSP is a breeding and management program designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of captive-based animal populations. The primary goal for the Mexican gray wolf SSP and red wolf SSP is to breed wolves for maximum genetic integrity for reintroduction into the wild.

While the WCC has been a vocal and visible advocate in trying to secure protections for critically endangered wolf species, we have also naturally been quite active in physically safeguarding the representatives of the rare species that have been entrusted to our care.

Organizations participating in the SSP are tasked with housing and caring for the wolves, collaborating in the captive breeding program, research, recommendations for release, and engaging in the sometimes-unusual measures to save the species.

This work is literally “behind the scenes” as visitors rarely get to see the wolves because they are generally kept off-exhibit to maintain their healthy aversion to humans.

Because the entire existing populations of Mexican wolves and red wolves are derived from such a limited founding populations (just 7 individuals for the Mexican wolf and 14 for the red wolf), genetic health is the primary consideration governing decisions re: reproductive pairings and captive-to-wild release events. It is also the reason that the SSP programs for both wolf species pursue extraordinary conservation measures to save these species including semen collection, gamete cryopreservation, and artificial insemination (AI).

Not every genetically valuable wolf in the SSP program has the chance to successfully breed, so WCC staff helps the wolves make an “investment” in the recovery of their rare species by collecting semen from the males during prime breeding season in mid-winter. Most of the genetic material collected is for cryopreservation for future potential use, an important option when trying to maintain diversity with such species that were once extinct in the wild.

Unbeknownst to Mexican wolves M1059 a.ka. “Diego,” M1198 “Alleno,” and red wolf M1803 “Moose,” their valuable contributions are poised to benefit their respective recovery programs in the not-so-distant future by fathering pups this season via AI.

Remote Breeding Pairs (breeding via AI):

  • Mexican gray wolf M1059 x Mexican gray wolf F1362 (resides at USFWS’s Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge pre-release facility)
  • Mexican gray wolf M1198 x F1143 (Rosa) – both reside at the WCC but in different family groups
  • Red wolf M1803 x Red Wolf F1568 (Argo) – both reside at the WCC, but proved incompatible. Thus, they live in separate enclosures

To best prepare for the coming AI events, last week WCC staff inserted an Ovuplant in each of the participating female wolves. Ovuplant is a sustained release implant of a hormone called “deslorelin.” The hormone, used to induce estrus and ovulation in wolves, allows the WCC to best predict when the females are most receptive to fertilization.

WCC curator Rebecca Bose injecting the Ovuplant

WCC curator Rebecca Bose injected the Ovuplant pellet into the inner thigh (the right under the skin) of each of the three female wolves. WCC staff will revisit the wolves next week to confirm their status before next steps are taken.

Although these measures might seem extreme, we strive to make every effort to recover these two critical keystone species.

Sometimes saving a species isn’t very romantic… But extinction is worse.