Return to the Wild: Releasing a Mexican Gray Wolf in the Forests of Arizona
I didn’t know much about the Mexican gray wolf before January 2011, when we contributed a flight in our Pilatus PC12 to the effort to re-establish the wolf in the forests of Arizona and New Mexico. I had known of Lighthawk and its excellent work for years, and had finally passed my PIC minimums to become an official Lighthawk pilot. This was our first Lighthawk flight. We began our mission at the Endangered Wolf Center outside St Louis, where our wolf, Zeke, was living with his family.
Our mission was to deliver Zeke to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team so that they could introduce him to a pack that had lost its alpha male the season before. Hopefully this pack could become a breeding group again. Our mission team included my 6 year old son, Tyler, his nanny Molly, and friend and professional pilot Brad England.
We welcomed Zeke and his handler, curator Jackie Fallon, onto our plane for a 4 ½ hour flight to Springerville AZ. Throughout the flight, the bright sun shining in the windows struck the mesh cover of Zeke’s crate at just the right angle to reveal the outline of his face and jaw through the mesh.
Tyler and Jackie checked on him by peeking into his crate throughout the flight, during which we kept the cabin at a wolf-comfortable 55 degrees. As we rolled out in Springerville, AZ, we saw a large welcoming group from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Grizzly Creek Film (filming for National Geographic) waiting for us on the taxiway. They were all very excited to meet Zeke and thanked us profusely for our help. They invited us to join and observe the activities for the remainder of the day, an invitation that we accepted with great excitement. We found beautiful clear weather at the 7,000 foot elevation airport, which serves the town of 2,000 population. In Springerville there is no commercial car rental facility, but we were able to arrange to rent a large 4WD pickup truck (“Keys will be in the gas cap, ma’am.”). Later we were very grateful for the 4WD!
The National Geographic group turned out to be Casey Anderson and his team. Casey’s shows, among them Expedition Wild, are favorites of Tyler’s, and they soon began comparing various episodes and sharing animal thoughts. Casey’s team was filming an episode about the Southwest, and Zeke and the Mexican grays were an important part of their project. It was clear that the crew has a great respect for the wolves and a deep love of wildlife and wild places.
As the day progressed, we finally grasped the significance of Zeke and our flight to the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction effort. Without Lighthawk and the services of a plane such as the PC12, Zeke would have had to travel by commercial air cargo or even Fedex, a process with vastly more stress to the animal. Instead of landing in Springerville, close to the release site, he would have had to arrive in a commercial airport much further away. Along the way, he’d have had long waits in cargo areas, possible changes of plane, and possible harassment from curious people. In our high-security present, Zeke wouldn’t have had the protection of his handler along the way. Even with our help, the time between his crating in St Louis and release into an enclosure in Arizona was nearly 15 hours.
Zeke will hopefully be another important figure in the overall Mexican gray wolf reintroduction effort. Currently, only 50 Mexican gray wolves are alive in the wild in the United States. Approximately 350 survive in total, with the captive population cared for by several captive breeding facilities and zoos. They are bred according to a Species Survival Program managed cooperatively among 50 or so groups, intended to maintain genetic diversity in the population. With only 50 individuals in the wild, every wolf is important, and a successful breeding pair of wolves in a pack is invaluable.
Zeke’s return to the wild is particularly fitting. He is the offspring of the (in)famous Bob of the Saddle Pack. Bob and his mate, F797 (no “human” name), were pulled from the wild in 2007 because they had developed a taste for livestock. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Assistant Recovery Coordinator for the Mexican wolf Maggie Dwire was involved in the capture then, and realized that the mother was nursing pups.
She and the field team desperately searched through the forest for the den, and managed to find and save all of the pups. Zeke is one of those pups, now grown to maturity himself. It is hoped that he can be released in an area rich enough with wild prey that he will resist the lures of livestock predation. Just as fittingly, Maggie was the officer in charge of Zeke’s release.
At the airport, Maggie showed everyone the tracking collar that Zeke would wear upon his release. Tyler was then allowed to write a good luck note on the collar and sign it. “Good luck Zeke. XOXO Tyler TLG.” We next proceeded to the FWS office in Alpine, where Zeke was collared, given a medical exam and some fluids. Our eyes were wide open as we watched the careful and well-coordinated process of “securing” Zeke and then opening the crate. Ultimately, he was carefully and (as gently as possible) muzzled, hobbled, and held with a capture pole while the vet and the team did their work to make sure he was healthy and ready for release. All were relieved that he hadn’t had to be tranquilized either in St Louis for his crating or at the FWS office.
Our next step was the long drive to an interim release enclosure, where Zeke would wait for the anticipated meeting with the alpha female. As we reached the enclosure, far down a deeply rutted, muddy and at times snowy road, darkness was falling. The FWS team carefully checked the boundaries of the enclosure and prepared it for Zeke with food, water and a little shelter. By the time all was ready for Zeke, it was fully dark and a stunning full moon was rising through the bare branches of the surrounding trees. It is not an exaggeration to say that all of our hearts were in our throats as we saw Zeke standing there, resplendent in his thick coat, looking out at us under that full moon deep in the forest.
The team had planned to capture Zeke’s “intended” alpha female and introduce them to each other in the controlled setting of the enclosure. Unfortunately she and her pack were spending their time in terrain too rough for a helicopter capture. Eventually Zeke was released alone near the site where the pack had recently killed an elk. The hope was the elk would continue to draw the pack into the area where Zeke was released, increasing the chances of them tying in together. The team knew the chances this would work were low, but wanted to give Zeke a shot at being free in the wild. When we received a photo of his release, we again found ourselves breathless and filled with hope. We spent the next 10 days or so going through our lives as normally as possible, but somewhere in the back of our minds we were always thinking of Zeke, wondering whether he had found the pack and how they were getting along. Our emotions were a mix of hope and fear. It was almost like having one’s child out in the world experiencing something new and a bit frightening, hoping for the best but fearing some mishap.
Finally we sent a message to Maggie, who reported that Zeke was back in his enclosure! Apparently he hadn’t joined the pack, and had been trying to survive alone, in the middle of winter, in an unusually deep snowpack for that region. Plan B is to hold him until spring, pair him with an alpha female, and release them together when the snow has receded and there are elk calves for an easier hunting introduction. There is still hope for Zeke, and if there is a role for us to play in the process, we stand ready to contribute our PC12 and its capabilities.
When we first began talking with Lighthawk about the mission, we hadn’t known much about the Mexican gray wolf. But as the flight date approached we began to see the wolves everywhere. A Mexican gray was on the cover of the Defenders of Wildlife magazine and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance 2011 Wild Guide. My email box became filled with news of attempts in Congress to exclude them from Endangered Species Act protections. We hope that none of those efforts are successful, as the loss of FWS support would be devastating.
Having flown Zeke to Arizona, and having experienced the wonder and thrill of his release, we will forever feel connected to the Mexican gray wolves. They have changed us and our lives, but we are not the first to have been touched by their power and energy. The Mexican gray wolves are actually responsible for the spark of legendary environmentalists Aldo Leopold and Ernest Seton. In both cases, the men found their lives and souls forever changed after they killed Mexican gray wolves. After Leopold watched the “fierce green fire” dying in the eyes of the wolf he shot, he realized that the wolf and the mountain had a wisdom known only to them. He wrote of the wolf’s fierce green fire in Sand County Almanac, and that imagery and beauty has in turn inspired a generation of conservationists. Seton created the genre of realistic animal writing after he was staggered by the spirit he witnessed in two wolves he killed in New Mexico. Rudyard Kipling would later credit Seton with the inspiration for The Jungle Book.