Norma’s Leap of Faith

So many people have put so much time and effort into the recovery of the endangered population of Mexican gray wolves.  One of the earliest was Norma Ames the team leader of the group that wrote the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan published in 1982.  Below is a brief piece I wrote about her. #LoboWeek

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

The wolf presented the mangled trophy to Norma–a dead ground squirrel.  That was the moment she began to believe the beleaguered Mexican gray wolf had a shot at making a comeback in the wild.

Norma Ames, trained as a biologist, was the assistant chief of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department in 1971 when she adopted two endangered wolf pups born in captivity at the Department’s Ghost Ranch facility.  She built an enclosure on her large, remote property in the forest, a place to raise and socialize the pups.

Five years after she took those first pups home (she later adopted a second pair), Mexican gray wolves, cousins to the northern gray wolf, were added to the endangered species list.  In constant conflict with ranchers in the Southwest, their population had been decimated by relentless trapping, shooting, and poisoning.   Seven wolves, called the McBride line for the trapper who captured them in the late 70s (all that he could locate), were brought in to start a breeding program.

The day Norma realized her wolves could and would still hunt she stopped the socializing, began to keep her distance.  She strove to keep them as wild as possible, hoping that someday they might be reintroduced into their native habitat.

In the early 80s Norma headed up the team that published a recovery plan for the Mexican wolf.

From the time I picked up and read the report with Norma’s name on the cover page, I wanted to know more about her, but where to go to ask questions about a woman who wrote a relatively obscure government report more than 30 years ago.  It turns out someone did find Norma and asked at least some of my questions.  Peter Steinhart recounted the story of her role in the recovery of Mexican wolves in his 1995 book The Company of Wolves.

Norma’s wolves weren’t destined for the wild.  Their lineage, Ghost Ranch, was considered tainted, not pure wolf.  She stopped breeding them and, one by one, they died of old age.  In 1987 after she had retired and was preparing to sell her place and move she had to make the tough decision to euthanize the lone survivor.  She did it to save the wolf from living out its life in a cage at a zoo.

But in 1997, the year before the first McBride wolves were released in the mountains of Arizona, genetic testing confirmed that the Ghost Ranch lineage, which had been maintained in New Mexico, was pure and the two lines, plus another from Mexico, were crossbred, giving the population a much-needed genetic boost and a better chance at recovery.

Wolves mate once a year in the winter, typically in February.  Norma died in February of 2005, seven years into the reintroduction effort.  Recovery was inching forward, with long term survival of Mexican wolves still not assured.  But by then there were eleven families of wolves running free in Arizona and New Mexico and several of the breeding wolves had been born in the wild.

More than twenty wolf pups were born in the spring of 2005 with at least ten still surviving at the end of the year.   Some of them carried Ghost Ranch genes.

Bobcat Winter

Washington—Officials are searching for a female bobcat they say has escaped from the National Zoo.  Ollie, a 25 pound female bobcat was last seen in her enclosure around 7:30 a.m. Monday. USA Today 1/30/17

Photo by Paula Nixon

Winter this year seemed to be filled with bobcat sightings and bobcat stories.

Back in January, I wrote about seeing a bobcat outside my kitchen window. I got a good look at him, but was disappointed to find he had managed to avoid my wildlife camera strapped to a nearby piñon tree.   A few days later I got the above shot—maybe the same cat, but no way to know for sure.

I was ready to post the photo when I ran across this story about a bobcat in Sedona, Arizona.  Game and Fish officials tried to trap the animal after it bit and scratched four people, but ended up having to kill it when it evaded capture.  Tests confirmed what they suspected—the bobcat had rabies.  I decided to call my local game department to find out if there was anything unusual about seeing a bobcat walk through my backyard in broad daylight, not once, but twice.

A few weeks passed and I still hadn’t made the call when I saw the bobcat again.  This time he passed within fifteen feet of the back door, crossing the patio while Dave and I watched in amazement.  He never turned to look at us and seemed to be focused on something that only he could sense, maybe a rabbit.  He flicked his stub of a tail and was gone.

Rick Winslow with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish listened when I told him about my multiple bobcat sightings and said it wasn’t uncommon to see them out and about during the day.  He assured me that rabies is extremely rare in our area—the last case he could recall was years ago in the southern part of New Mexico.

And since then, not a sign of the bobcat.  I’m certain he’s still out there, just keeping a low profile.

After a two-plus day walkabout in the leafy wilds of northern Washington an escaped bobcat returned to the National Zoo and walked right into a trap where some “goodies” had been left for her Wednesday, zookeepers said.
Ben Nuckols—Associated Press 2/1/17


The Legacy of Mexican Wolf F521

Female Mexican Gray Wolf at Wildlife West Nature Park
Photo Credit: Paula Nixon

The deadline to submit comments on the 2017 Wolf Release Proposal is tonight at 11:59 pm.  If you have read it, maybe you wondered about the wolf called F521 (her studbook number) and how it came to be that so many of the small population of Mexican wolves living in the wild are so closely related to her.

I first discovered F521 years ago in a monthly status report.

She was born on the side of a mountain in 1997 at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs.  Zookeepers called her Estrella, star in Spanish.  She and her littermates were special because of their genetics, a mix of two of the three lineages of the small captive population.

At the age of five, F521 was released with her mate and family (2 juvenile pups and five new pups) in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was the summer of 2002, early on in the Mexican wolf reintroduction effort (at the time there were approximately 26 wolves living in the wild), and no one knew how this family, named the Bluestem Pack, would adapt to life in the wild.

In the first few weeks they had to be hazed away from a ranch and killed a blue heeler before settling in and chasing down their first elk.  They established a territory and the next spring F521 gave birth to her first litter of wild-born pups.  She remained the alpha (breeding) female of the Bluestem Pack for six years, outliving one mate, finding another, and continuing to raise new litters of pups each year.  Some of those pups went on to establish new packs and have litters of their own.

In 2008 one of F521’s female offspring, F1042, replaced her as the alpha female in the pack.

The old wolf, probably no longer welcome in her pack, sometimes ran alone and sometimes ran with another pack.  In December of 2010 she was found dead in the Gila National Forest, killed in an illegal shooting.  F521 was thirteen.

Once again it is breeding season for wolves and the Bluestem Pack still lives in the White Mountains with F1042 as the alpha female.  In late April or early May  pups will be born.

The numbers cited in the 2017 proposal are surprising and alarming. Of the eighteen potential breeding pairs living in the wild in 2017, three  have one adult that is a descendant of F521 and fifteen have both adults that are descendants of F521. Inbreeding has always posed a threat for Mexican gray wolves.  They came so close to extinction that there were only seven founders when breeding in captivity began.

Fifteen years ago when F521 was released in the wild she was a star not only in name, but also in the genetic potential she offered to the wild population.  She did her part—  she lived wild and free for more than eight years and raised lots of pups.

The most recent estimate of Mexican wolves living in the wild is 113. A combination of too few wolves being released and too many wolves being killed illegally has led to the current dire situation.

More wolves from the captive population need to be released immediately.

The 2017 proposal is a start—2 families and 10 cross-fostered pups—a move in the right direction.

Please take a moment to send an email to in support of the proposed releases.


Ernesta and Wesley

In the second half of 2016 I wrote several short pieces about different aspects of the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort and submitted them to a magazine that has a “Readers Write” feature with a different theme each month.  This one, unpublished, was on the topic of honeymoons.  It seems appropriate for today!

Coronado alpha pair (AF1126-Ernesta behind M1051-Wesley) caring for the pups at Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As honeymoons go, it wasn’t very exotic or romantic–two wolves behind a wire fence on a remote and scrubby patch of land in western New Mexico.  Sevilleta, it’s called.  With the pair:  four pups, hers.

A photograph from the summer of 2014 captures a moment in the life of the newly-blended family.  She’s lying in the dirt, head up, a pup nipping at her muzzle.  He’s standing behind her, tail down, a fine specimen of a Mexican gray wolf, long-legged and grizzled. Turned away from the camera, perhaps distracted by one of the pups, his radio collar is clearly visible.  Another of the pups sits at his haunches.

Ernesta, the female, was born in 2008 at a refuge in Missouri.  Named by a donor, she was bred with a combination of genes badly-needed to conserve and expand a small population of endangered wolves living in the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona.  When she was selected for potential release, it was not only because of her genetic makeup, but also her excellent health and aversion to people. 

Wesley was born in 2007 in the Gila Wilderness to an established pack.  Before he was a month old he and his entire family were placed in captivity for killing cows.  Wesley had spent his life behind fences waiting, without knowing it, for an opportunity to again live in the wild.

Her breeding and his wildness brought the pair together in 2012 at Sevilleta, a preconditioning facility.  They bonded and the next spring she conceived.  Before their pups were born they were relocated to an enclosure in the forest, one step closer to freedom.  It didn’t go well.   The litter, her first, perished. Squabbles at the fence line with wild wolves caused the release to be cancelled. 

Back to Sevilleta, but not together.

Ernesta was paired with another male and conceived again in the spring of 2014.  In April the two were released across the state line in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Within days he bolted.  Alone, she dug a den and gave birth. 

Fearing for the lives of her pups, again humans intervened.  Back to Sevilleta.

A couple of days after Ernesta and her pups had settled in, Wesley was introduced to the enclosure.  No drama.  He took to patrolling the perimeter when he wasn’t hanging out next to the den, close to Ernesta.  Within weeks the pups were exploring, tagging along with Wesley on his reconnaissance missions.  Plans were underway for the family’s release.

Known as the Coronado Pack, the six wolves were trucked into the Gila Wilderness in late July.  At the end of a dirt road, they were taken off the truck and loaded on the backs of mules and packed into a remote spot called McKenna Park.

I imagine a hush in the forest as the sounds of the humans and mules receded in the distance, leaving the wolves behind. 

A flimsy mesh pen was all that stood between Ernesta and Wesley and their new life–a chance to run with their pups, to hunt elk and sleep with full stomachs under the ponderosa pines.

New Snow and a Bobcat Sighting

The wild things that live on my farm are reluctant to tell me, in so many words, how much of my township is included in their daily or nightly beat. —Aldo Leopold

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting at the kitchen table reading A Sand County Almanac when a shadow on the fresh snow outside caught my eye.  Thinking it was probably a rabbit, I went to the window for a closer look and was surprised to see a bobcat, unmistakable with his short tail and tufted ears.

I ran downstairs and out the back door thinking he would  have disappeared into the trees, but found that he had, instead, circled around the big boulder and car parked in the drive.  He stopped short when he saw me and we studied each other across the gravel driveway for a few moments before he turned and vanished.

Bobcat Tracks. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Bobcat Tracks.
Photo by: Paula Nixon

I followed his tracks and discovered he had come from a neighbor’s yard via a small opening between two latillas in the coyote fence, just barely wide enough for a 15 to 20 pound cat to squeeze through.

Bobcats are not uncommon in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (I sometimes catch them on my camera trap), but this was only my second sighting in twenty years—the perfect excuse to get out of the house and enjoy the first snow of 2017!

Let’s Try That Again

I had lots of trouble with yesterday’s post, especially the photo.  In case it did not come through on the first email you received, here is the link.

9 Hours 53 Minutes 3 Seconds

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake.
—Timothy Steele


Photo by: Paula Nixon

Before this shortest day of the year is over I’ll share these lines from Timothy Steele’s poem Toward the  Winter Solstice and my shot of the L.A. sky, taken yesterday afternoon.

Here’s to a joyful and peaceful holiday season.  There will be lots of work to do in the new year.

Coyote about Town

On a Saturday morning in November I was out running errands driving on Paseo De Peralta, the closest thing Santa Fe has to a loop. As I approached the Capitol, I was surprised to see a coyote crossing the four lane street.

Given New Mexico’s ongoing persecution of coyotes, I imagined she was on her way to the office of Animal Protection Voters (apvnm), just across the street from the Round House, perhaps  to take up the issue of killing contests or trapping on public lands but, of course,  she had her own agenda.

She looked a little scroungy with her beat-up half tail, but she knew where she was going as surely as I knew the way to the grocery store.

Before I had time to reach for my camera she had disappeared.

Coyote Photo By: Paula Nixon

Photo By: Paula Nixon

Back in my yard I’ve been fussing with my camera trap trying out different locations, each for a few days at a time, checking to see who passes by.  In the last year we have added walls, stairs, and an iron gate.  I was curious if all of the changes had caused the bears, bobcats, and coyotes to abandon their old trails across our lot.

Finally, after my most recent attempt with the camera trained on the driveway  (a pathway down the mountain long before we showed up) I found this photo–a coyote on the first Friday of December about 4 o’clock.  

No way to know for certain, but she looks a lot like the one I spotted in town last month.

Too Many Words

I have been trying to figure out what to write since Tuesday night. I finally decided—not much.   It’s been a loud, long campaign and now it is finally over.   We all need a break, a little peace and quiet.

I will share a couple of  brief comments from two of my favorite writers who inspired me this week.

From Terry Tempest Williams on election night:

A couple of days later from Sherman Alexie:

And finally, from Hillary Rodham Clinton in her November 9th speech:  “Make sure your voices are heard going forward . . . Fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

Good night.  Don’t forget to go outside and take a look at the full moon.  EarthSky says it will be “equally awesome” tonight and tomorrow night (November 13th and 14th).

Bathsheba: A Long Island Oyster

To define nature as the wild things apart from cities is one of the great fantastic American stories. ~Jenny Price

When I pulled up a barstool at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City on a recent Monday I was famished.  The lunch hour was long past and I wanted something quick and local.  I selected the Lazy Mermaid oysters from Long Island to go with my Mermaid pilsner, brewed in Brooklyn.  But my mermaid-themed lunch was not to be—that particular oyster was sold out.  My second choice, Bathsheba (misspelled on the menu as Bathseba), another local oyster, was available.

Photo by: Paula Nixon

Photo by: Paula Nixon

It took me a good long time, but once I learned to appreciate oysters they reminded me—in a way that no other fish or shellfish does—of the ocean.  The best ones, like the Bathsheba, taste fresh and clean and briny.

Back at a home, a few days after savoring those oysters, I reread Jenny Price’s essay Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A. and thought about my stop at the oyster bar. Grand Central Station sits in the heart of Manhattan and seems about as far removed from the natural world as one can get, but Price challenges us to consider nature in a new way—as a part of life no matter where we are.

So, I wondered, where exactly did those oysters come from. After all, Long Island is just a short train ride away from midtown Manhattan.

A Google search turned up a 2008 map of Long Island and some of its oysters, but a lot has changed since then.  This 2014 New York Times story describes the resurgence in more recent years of oyster farming on the island.  Overfishing, pollution, and Hurricane Sandy (2012) had all taken their toll, but Crassotrea virginica, the eastern oyster, was, and still is, making a comeback.

It was Friday afternoon and not thinking I would  reach anyone I called and left a message at the Long Island Oyster Company.  Steve, the proprietor and ‘oyster guy’, called me right back, but was also stumped by the Bathsheba.   He promised to see what he could find out and by Monday I had my answer.  The Bathsheba comes from the Great South Bay, a long narrow body of water bordered on the north by Long Island and the south by Fire Island, the original home of the famous Blue Point oyster, known for its mild, but salty flavor.

So now I know a little bit more about my lunch, but find I have a lot more questions.  What role does the oyster play in the health of the bay?   How much risk is there of another hurricane destroying the new oyster beds?  How exactly does a Bathsheba oyster make the journey from the floor of the bay to the ice-filled trays at the Grand Central Oyster Bar?

Those questions will have to wait for another day, another afternoon at the oyster bar, maybe even a trip out to the Great South Bay of Long Island.