by Jackie Fallon
This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the Mexican Wolf Field Project in Arizona and New Mexico. This opportunity was made possible by the Minnesota Zoo’s Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Fund, which covered my expenses during the month I spent working in the Southwest.
I arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 2 and was met by two wolf biologists—Maggie Dwire and Melissa Wolff. We quickly headed to the Ladder Ranch in southern New Mexico, which is part of the Turner Endangered Species Fund where wolves are held for release into the wild. We were going to do a capture the next morning of a litter of pups that had been produced at the facility and were awaiting future release.
The terrain of New Mexico is quite a bit different and I quickly learned about diving with a net for a pup among cacti…give me the bugs and grasses of the Minnesota enclosure ANYDAY! In the morning, we quickly processed the pups, I said my goodbyes to Maggie and Melissa and loaded my gear into another truck to head to Alpine, Arizona where the Wolf Field Team is headquartered.
Studying Kill Sites
During the month, I had many opportunities to participate at just about every level of the field team operation. My primary role was to collect data from kill sites in Arizona and New Mexico. Twice a week, the biologist who was studying kill rates and prey items in wild Mexican gray wolves downloaded geographical positioning system (GPS) locations. Once the GPS locations were downloaded from a wolf’s collar, a team of two volunteers would go to the site and collect information there. Things we were looking for included confirming a kill by a wolf (that is, rather than a kill by a puma, bear, dog, or coyote), noting wolf presence (beds, scats, tracks), looking for evidence of an attack, and so on. I primarily worked in the Alpine area, specifically with the Meridian Pack (see news article about this release); but, I would also would travel to other areas in Arizona or New Mexico when I finished with Meridian.
|What is the Minnesota Zoo's role in Mexican Wolf recovery?
The Minnesota Zoo became involved with this Mexican Gray Wolf Species Survival Program (SSP) in the fall of 1994, with two females and one male at the outset. In 2003, it received a significant achievement award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for its involvement with the program after celebrating the birth of seven pups in May of that year. And, in fact, the Meridian Pack female featured in this article (known as "Alita" before she was released to the wild) was born and raised at the Minnesota Zoo.
I had a difficulty with the altitude in that region of the United States but, by the end of the month I was able to cover the terrain in much better time than when I first arrived. There is something to be said for “sea level folk." Thank goodness the field team had unending patience with my abilities in gathering data in a “longer than normal” time period.
When I wasn’t gathering data at a kill site, I was able to help the field team in many other areas of the project. This included talking with hunters, ranchers, and campers about wolves in the area, setting traps to put collars on wolves, doing education programs in the area with the local community, and keeping the new “Meridians” away from human dwellings.
One of the most memorable days was at 5:30 am at one of the local ranches that the Meridian trio was hanging around. While the biologist was getting a signal on the radio collar so we could determine the pack’s location, I heard the ground thunder and then a crashing sound in the brush. Within 20 yards, I was witness to the Meridian adult pair testing a herd of elk and trying for a kill. It was the experience of a lifetime on just my SECOND day on the team. For recently released captive wolves, this was proof in my own mind about the abilities of this predator. It was even sweeter because the Meridian female was the Minnesota Zoo’s own wolf #838. Although the pair was unsuccessful that morning, we were able to confirm the pair killed an adult bull elk just a week later.
This entire experience was something that I had hoped for when I heard that the Meridian Pack was actually going to be released. The participation of a zoo in a reintroduction project is something we often strive for, but is often not possible due to habitat, prey base, or human intolerance. The Mexican wolf project has had its share of challenges, but is still something that could be successful if biology played a larger role than politics. However, wolves have faced this same challenge throughout history and I doubt anything will change quickly. I can always hope, though, that this MIGHT be possible, and it makes me proud to say the Minnesota Zoo has played an active role in such a project.
About the author:
Jackie Fallon is Vice President of Field Operations for the Midwest Peregrine Society.
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