Wildlife Disservice

Someone is shooting endangered Mexican gray wolves. The government's flawed reintroduction program helped put them in the crosshairs.

The disintegration of the Hawk's Nest pack sent No. 131 into a bit of a frenzy, including a near disastrous foray into a sheep pasture near Alpine, Boyd-Heger said.

"He just started wandering a lot the last three weeks," she said in her clipped Minnesota accent. "Until he settles down a little bit, it is going to be very difficult to catch him."

Boyd-Heger stopped the truck and set up an antenna that would provide a more precise location of No. 131.

"He's been places the last week where he's never been before," she said. "That's why I'd like to catch him before he blows through the town."

A few days earlier, the recovery team had captured the Campbell Blue pack's alpha male, No. 166. The fat and happy wolf was found on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, gorging on an elk. He was placed into a new acclimation pen on November 18 to begin bonding with an 18-month-old female wolf that was born at the Phoenix Zoo.

No. 166 was the mate to the female wolf injured in the elk encounter and later shot last August. He displayed some unique behavior in the aftermath of his mate's death.

"When she was killed, he continued to take care of that pup, provide food, and traveled with him," Boyd-Heger said while fiddling with the radio transmitter. "I thought that was really good for a lone male wolf, and they were doing pretty well."

But a few days later, the pup was gone.
"Right after the pup disappeared, the male showed up on the edge of [the town of] Nutrioso and just did some behavior he had never done before," she said.

For the first time, the Campbell Blue alpha male started hanging around people and cows.

"It was interesting his behavior was modified by the loss of his mate and the pup. We chased him out of there for a couple of days. He then went on his way and has been a good boy ever since."

Boyd-Heger is secretive about how she goes about catching wayward wolves. "You just have to think like a wolf," she said. "I've been doing this a long time."

Six feet tall, blond and tough, Boyd-Heger has been at the forefront of wolf research for 20 years. She has spent weeks at a time alone in the wilderness. She tracked the first wolf to enter Glacier National Park from Canada and used the data for her master's thesis at the University of Montana.

She exudes both warmth and tenderness for wolves, yet can be coldly analytical about their fate. The emotional ties she develops in the field are tempered by her scientific training, which includes a doctorate from the University of Montana in wolf genetics.

In the back of her truck are a half-dozen or so rubber-jawed leg-hold traps that Boyd-Heger uses to capture wayward wolves. Baits, usually elk carcass, are spread to lure the wolf, Boyd-Heger hinted at a secret ingredient.

"Maybe I'll save my urine for a trap," she said with a laugh before trooping into the woods to set a trap for No. 131.

But the Hawk's Nest alpha male headed back toward Alpine before venturing into New Mexico. Boyd-Heger would finally catch him on November 23 near Hannagan Meadow, and put him back in an acclimation pen.

With No. 131's capture, there were no Mexican gray wolves roaming free for the first time since March 29. The two pairs of wolves remained in their respective acclimation pens for the next three weeks until they were rereleased on December 11.

To keep hunters from mistaking them for coyotes, the reintroduction team marked the wolves with splotches of bright orange paint. The male wolves' radio collars have been painted bright orange, while the females' collars are fluorescent pink.

If the wolves can avoid bullets, the reintroduction team believes they have a good chance of mating and raising pups. Biologists hope the hunting and survival skills learned by the alpha males while they were free will assist the females in making the transition from captivity to the wild.

But no one knows whether the wolves will stick together.
"There is a trade-off in how long you hold the wolves in the pen," Boyd-Heger explained.

The longer the wolves stay in the pen, the more likely they will bond and be inclined to mate. But there is a downside to a long, confined courtship.

"The longer you hold them, the more habituated the male is going to become again to being fed and being around the pen," she said. "He's been out in the wild, free for seven months, and we don't want him to go backwards."

Starting new wolf packs in the wild is essential to the success of the project. The project lacks enough captive wolves to make a mass release, as was done in Yellowstone National Park, where wild wolves were transplanted en masse after being captured in the Canadian Rockies.

The Mexican gray wolf project must first select wolves with suitable genetic and behavioral characteristics for release from a pool of captive wolves held in zoos around the country. The chosen few are then transported to one of three isolated prerelease facilities, where they will remain for a year or more.

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