Photo by Paula Nixon
On a Saturday morning in early July Dave and I drove north out of Silver City on Highway 15. I turned off my cellphone and unfolded a large US Forest Service (USFS) topographic map. We rolled down the windows and savored the slow pace—it would take almost two hours to drive the winding 45 miles to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Although it was my first trip to the Gila National Forest my map was worn, marked with a highlighter—past locations of Mexican gray wolves, gleaned from telemetry reports.
Ours was a short trip, just a day, with a couple of hours for hiking. I had no thought of seeing or hearing any sign of the small population of wolves that run in the Gila. That would take a longer visit: getting further out into the wilderness, camping for a night or two, being still.
It was enough to enjoy a summer day in the forest: the scent of pines with a hint of rain in the air, the almost-forgotten sound of quiet, three mule deer drinking at a stream, and delicate white prickly poppies fluttering in the breeze by the side of the road.
We stopped at the visitor center where I asked a National Park Service (NPS) volunteer about wolf sightings in the area but the answer was no, none recently.
Another mile and the road ran out at the base of the Gila Cliff Dwellings. As we parked and got ready to hike up to the caves I thought about the Coronado Pack.
Coronado Pack being transferred by mule into the Gila Wilderness
Photo Courtesy of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service
Almost exactly two years before my visit the family of six Mexican wolves, an alpha pair and their four pups, had been released deep in the wilderness, about 20 miles east of here, at a place called McKenna Park. The adult wolves had traveled long circuitous routes to get to this point and this would be their last, best chance to live in the wild. The most recent leg of their journey had started at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, a pre-release site for Mexican wolves, 200 miles northeast. Transported by truck they had stopped for the night somewhere near where I was now standing. The next morning the wolves were loaded on the backs of mules in preparation to travel the last few miles of their trip.
We hiked up to the caves stopping to talk with NPS volunteers who filled us in on the Mogollon people who had called these caves home for a short time in the late 13th century. We studied the stone walls and fire rings and listened to theories about where the Mogollon had come from and why they left. I imagined them returning to this safe place at the end of each day, gathering around a fire as the sun set. I wondered if they had heard the howls of the Coronado Pack’s ancestors.
Back in the parking lot after our hike we watched a NPS employee holler and toss small stones at a squirrel intent on running up a steep, rocky hill with a Styrofoam cup in his mouth. He finally heeded her demands and paused for a moment, dropped his treasure, and scampered out of sight leaving the piece of trash stranded and inaccessible. As we drove away an enterprising hiker was attempting to scramble up the rock face to retrieve it.
The Gila Wilderness seems huge at over half a million acres, but seeing caves that had been inhabited more than 700 years ago was a reminder that life here had, for a very long time, been a balancing act between the needs and desires of humans and those of the creatures with whom they shared the forest.
The Coronado Pack did not survive. Even in this vast wilderness they ran into conflicts with people and their domesticated animals. The alpha female was found dead* within six months of their release and the rest of her pack scattered.
*According to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program: Progress Report #17 the alpha female of the Coronado Pack, AF1126, “was located on mortality” on December 22, 2014. To date I have not been able to get any further details about her death.