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 This one, unpublished, was on the topic of honeymoons.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!
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.