One Day, Three Rangers

Happy Birthday to the National Park Service!

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

Glacier National Park
June 2013
Ranger Brian pulled a grizzly claw out of his jacket pocket and explained that the bears were making a slow comeback, in part because the females only have cubs once every three years.  The small crowd, sitting on hard benches in the Discovery Cabin, listened attentively.  The perimeter of the rustic room was lined with shelves filled with animal pelts, skulls,  teeth—the props Brian used as he described the diverse animal population in Glacier National Park.  A couple of kids in the audience jumped up when he asked for volunteers, eager to assist in his demonstration of the difference between antlers and horns.

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

There are lots of ways to explore Glacier but on this cool, rainy June day Dave and I opted to stay close to the lodge.  Ours was going to be a very short visit after a very long trip—a late night flight into Idaho Falls two days earlier and then a 400-mile drive through Montana with stops along the way to look at construction projects. It was a mini-vacation at the end of our work week—the opportunity we had been looking for to get back to a favorite national park.

We decided the best way to make the most of our one full day in the park was to go to as many ranger programs as we could squeeze in.  We started with the Amazing Animals talk in Agpar Village and after Brian finished answering questions, he stepped outside to identify an unfamiliar pine tree for me.

Back at the lodge we hustled out to the dock for a cruise on the DeSmet.  Ranger Doug was waiting, microphone in hand, when we boarded.  Rain threatened our tour of Lake McDonald, but a little foul weather wasn’t going to deter the veteran ranger.  With more than fifty years of service in Glacier, he had lived through more than a few fires and floods and had tales to tell.

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Bear Grass. Photo by Paula Nixon

As we motored around the lake, he stressed the importance of water, fire, and ice in the ongoing evolution of the park.  Doug spent years hiking on the glaciers and remembers when the ice first began to recede.  Thinking it was only temporary, he found it hard to believe when he realized it wasn’t returning (the current estimate is that glaciers in the park will disappear by 2030).  Before we disembarked, Doug left us with a piece of advice, “Next time you get on a boat make sure there’s not a ranger on it with a big hat and a mouth to match.”

At dusk we parked and walked to Fish Creek amphitheater for our final event.  I regretted my forgotten umbrella,  but the shower was short-lived and Ranger Sarah’s enthusiasm was contagious.  She had just finished college with a degree in chemistry and this was her first summer as a ranger. She focused on the diversity present in the park starting at the lowest level—diatoms and moved up to insects.  They’re not nearly as engaging as a mountain goat or a gray wolf, but by the time she was finished we were all rooting for the survival of the western glacier stonefly, a tiny creature found only in the park whose existence is threatened by the shrinking ice.

Back at the lodge I had a buffalo burger and a beer and scribbled all I could remember from the ranger talks in my notebook before I fell asleep.

Three years have passed since that day spent at Glacier but the memories stay with me:  bunches of fluffy white bear grass in the forest; a sunbeam breaking through the clouds and lighting up the lake;  three foxes with white-tipped tails next to the trail, as curious about us as we were about them.

To Rangers Brian, Doug, and Sarah I thank you for your passion, wit, and generosity!


A Trip to New Mexico’s Wolf Country

Photo by: Paula Nixon

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

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. 

Summer Vacation

For most of us the childhood dream of  ‘summer vacation’ is probably more ideal than  reality.  A few days off to explore–the mountains, the beach, a national park, maybe even a trip out of the country–then it’s back to the routine.

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas I waited all year for that week or two. For my family that often meant a trip to Colorado or New Mexico.  In 1966, before we started camping, we stayed at a rustic cabin in Decker’s Corner in the Pike National Forest not too far from Denver.
Decker's Corners, 1966. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Decker’s Corners, 1966. Photo by: Paula Nixon

I was eight and taking my first pictures with an old Brownie camera given to me by my Uncle Douglas. For this post I considered cropping the trash can and Coors box out of the photo, but decided it was part of the memory–the trip wasn’t a perfect one.  We arrived just in time for the fourth of July and the locals celebrated not only with fireworks, but also by firing their shotguns into the air, making my parents uneasy.

Twenty or so years later Dave and I took another trip to Decker’s.  We were living less than forty miles away and it was an easy place to get to for an overnight camping trip.  We took off late on a Saturday afternoon, somehow managing to forget our tent poles.  We gamely rolled out our sleeping bags on top of the flat tent, but didn’t last the night fearing we were too close to a dirt bike trail head.  We woke the next morning in our own bed. I haven’t been back to Decker’s since.

This summer, instead of one long vacation, we have taken a couple of short trips to new locales: a weekend in Silver City and the Gila Wilderness and a jaunt along a short stretch of the Oregon Coast.  It’s always an adventure to see how unknown places square with our ideas of them once we finally get to visit.

Otherwise, it’s been a summer of rediscovering old favorites:  a trip to the Albuquerque BioPark to see a new pair of Mexican wolves, Kawi and Apache, and weekly visits to the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market where tomatoes and corn have finally arrived.

Although the end is in sight, there’s still lots of summer left to enjoy.

Early this morning I got up to watch the Perseid meteor shower, one of my August favorites.  Twenty or thirty streaking stars later, I went back to bed thinking that I should go outside more often in the middle of the night to enjoy the dark skies, cool air, and quiet.

I may be groggy all day, but it’s worth it to squeeze every last bit of summer out of the season!

Mexican Wolf News – June 2016

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Many of us in New Mexico, Arizona, and points beyond were waiting last week to hear what a U.S. District Judge in Las Cruces was going to say about wolf introductions (releases) in New Mexico.

For a a quick recap of how we got to this point, this article about a 100 year old Mexican wolf pelt that was returned to New Mexico last year tells a bit about the history of the lobo (and its demise) in the Southwest and also about recent changes to the recovery effort that now calls for  introduction of the endangered wolves in New Mexico.  Up until now initial releases only occurred in Arizona with wolves being allowed to migrate across the state line into the Gila National Forest (Gila).

Objecting to the new rules, the NM Department of Game and Fish refused to issue permits to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) granting them permission to release wolves in the state.  The conflict escalated once it became known that in April FWS had placed  two captive-born pups with a pack living in the Gila without a permit. That’s when the state went to court to request a restraining order to not only halt future wolf releases, but to also remove the pups.

A few days before the judge issued a ruling, four conservation groups—Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance—filed a motion on behalf of the wolves.  In this Albuquerque Journal guest column, Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity makes the compelling argument that Mexican wolves need to be rescued from politics if they are to have a real chance at recovery.

Over the last few weeks, in newspapers around the state there have been numerous letters to the editor written in support of wolf releases in New Mexico.   Curious, I did a little more looking to see if there had been letters expressing other viewpoints.  I did not find any, although there is opposition.

On Friday, June 10th, the judge issued a 24-page opinion granting the state’s request to prohibit the release of wolves in the state without a permit. The ruling inhibits FWS’s ability to get more wolves out into the wild in an ongoing effort to improve genetic diversity.

The good news?  The wolf pups, recently placed with a wild foster pack in the GIla, will be allowed to stay.

The wolves, of course, are oblivious to the drama.   About now, the pups of the year are beginning to explore their surroundings. Over the summer they will start to travel with the pack, short trips at first until they are bigger and stronger.  And on a dark quiet night they will discover their voices, following the lead of the adults, joining in the chorus, lifting their heads in a first howl.


The Missing Robins

My birdbath, a large shallow dish, hangs suspended from three chains on a skinny post in the backyard.  During the summer months it’s the only thing on my bird-feeding station, no sunflower seeds or suet that might encourage the bears to come sniffing around.  This adobe-colored, plastic version replaced a much more beautiful, but less practical, blue-glazed pottery saucer that met its demise a few years ago.

The robins don’t seem to care—plastic or ceramic—they just need a place to get a drink and take a bath.

Photo Credit: joeldinda via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: joeldinda via Compfight cc

Last year a pair of the thrushes nested in a nearby piñon tree and took turns coming to the water.  The male with his bright red breast and dark head was an enthusiastic bather.  It was my favorite part of the day—to watch him  take a sip or two while standing on the rim before venturing in to take a short but splashy bath.  When he was done, he’d pause to have a good shake and then would disappear in the trees.

There’s been no sign of the two in the nest this spring.  My backyard has been filled with welders and stonemasons and their noisy tools.  An occasional robin—maybe the same one?—passes through and pauses for a quick drink, but no bathing.

I’m not the only one.  In this lovely essay, Constancy, the writer has also been missing a  familiar pair of birds.

My backyard has gone quiet now.  The work is finished.  Maybe the robins will return.


Meeting Turner

Paula & Turner Photo by: Jessie Burns

Paula & Turner
Photo by: Jessie Burns

Turner Burns is a busy sixth grader.  I met him last week during a short break he had between the end of the school day and a concert he was performing in that night.  He lives in Philadelphia and I was in the city  for a couple of days while Dave attended a convention.

We met in Washington Square near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (honoring  those who fought in the Revolutionary War).  Turner, his mom, Jessie, and their golden retriever had enough time for a short walk through a nearby rose garden.  We talked about wolves and watched as  Keeper, the retriever, stopped for a long roll in a patch of clover.

Turner started a Facebook page called Kids for Wolves back when he was just seven.  He was inspired to tell others  about wolves after a visit to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York.  Two years ago when I  wrote  a story about Turner he had almost 2000 followers.

He has been a big supporter of Mexican gray wolves, participating in wolf pup naming contests and giving names to two pups, Keeper and Nike (m1277 born in 2012 and m1329 born in 2013).  His artwork was also featured on the 2014 New Mexico Wilderness Alliance’s wolf conservation stamp. The sale of the annual stamp raises funds that are used for conservation efforts and education projects.

Turner continues to advocate for wolves, keeping his readers informed about ways to make a difference—signing petitions, making calls to government officials, spreading the word to others.

It seemed fitting that we would meet in such a historic place, the neighborhood that was home to some of our country’s earliest magazines and newspapers.  Turner is making the most of our new ways of communicating.  He now has almost 5000 Facebook followers.

In a recent post he wrote:

I was brushing my teeth tonight when I thought, “One post a day keeps extinction away.” If everyone who follows this page posts a petition or news, or just shares information about wolves with another person [they are] making an impact towards saving a lot of wolves . . .

Well said, Turner!


Bird Watching at Valle de Oro

Valle de Oro Photo by: Paula Nixon

Valle de Oro
Photo by: Paula Nixon

The first week in May I made a trip to Albuquerque and stopped to spend an hour at Valle de Oro, the wildlife refuge just a few minutes south of the city.

It was a perfect spring day,  cottonwood trees with shiny, new leaves, puffy white clouds hanging above the distant mountains.  The hay fields were flooded and birds were everywhere:  perched on fenceposts, singing; floating in a puddle; soaring overhead.

I walked along a dirt road and flushed a cattle egret out of a ditch running with irrigation water.  Through the barbed wire I could see Canada geese and mallards.  A flock of dark birds, foraging with long, curved beaks were new to me.  Back at the car I flipped through my field guide until I identified them—white-faced ibis.

The next day on the refuge’s Facebook page a birder posted her list of birds observed on a three-hour hike through the area.  She had spotted fifty-three different species. Wow.  I was excited to see ten or so different birds and to identify one new one—the difference between an expert and a novice.

I perused her list of warblers, swallows, and finches.  Some I knew, many I didn’t and those I looked up in my Sibley guide until I found the one that I had taken a blurry photo of, but didn’t recognize.   It was a killdeer, a member of the plover family—another new addition to my list, a coastal bird at an elevation of over 5000 feet and more than 800 miles away from the Pacific.  With its white-banded throat, big eyes, and long legs calls it “a shorebird you can see without going to the beach.”






May Flowers

Snapdragons. Photo By: Paula Nixon

Portland snapdragons
Photo By: Paula Nixon

I was in Portland a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a once a month thing.  Dave looks at a construction project and I get to walk around a nearby neighborhood with killer flowers.  In late March it was tulips and daffodils and grape hyacinths.  I took dozens of pictures.

On the April trip I was just going to enjoy the cool, quiet morning, no photos, but before I had walked a block I had my cell phone out taking shots. Bearded iris, delicate stems of lavender, and trees with blossoms I couldn’t identify.

I think my love of flowers came from Mom.  She has been planting and nurturing them as long as I can remember.   Sweet peas along the back fence on Fairview.  Geraniums in the front planter on Windsor.  Most recently, dahlias and larkspur in her backyard in Colorado.

But I’m not much of a gardener, especially since I moved to New Mexico—content to leave the landscape as is.  My ‘yard’ is mostly natural with native plants, piñon and juniper, chamisa and prickly pear.  A couple of patches of iris, a few scraggly lilacs, and a forsythia bush, planted by a former owner, survive, and in wet years thrive.

Tulips. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Photo by: Paula Nixon

I’m perfectly happy to enjoy other people’s labors: the rose garden at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hanging baskets filled with trailing petunias on the Plaza, and my neighbor’s morning glories that have migrated to my side of the fence.

I keep track of what is blooming in the city and where, so when Mom visits I can take her on the tour.  Last month we drove around admiring the decked-out trees: peach, pear, redbud.

To my surprise I found tulips blooming in my backyard when I returned from Portland.  I planted the bulbs long ago in an old whiskey barrel.  They’ve never done much, but this spring some mysterious combination of snow and sunshine awakened them.  For a week I have enjoyed their beauty wishing Mom was here to see them.



Wolf News – Late April 2016

It’s been a rocky start to the year for Mexican gray wolves.  First, it was the decrease in the wild population as documented in the year-end count.  Then, several wolf deaths in the new year, some if not all caused by humans.  And finally, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission continues to thwart recovery efforts in our state, attempting to restrict or prohibit the release of captive wolves into the wild.

Wolf Rally--Albuquerque, NM. April 28, 2016. Photo by: Jean Ossorio

Wolf Rally–Albuquerque, NM. April 28, 2016.
Photo by: Jean Ossorio

None of those things have changed and it will continue to be an ongoing battle to establish a genetically-diverse population of Mexican wolves, safe from extinction, living in their native habitat.  But there was some good news in the final week of April.

Here are a few of the stories:

April 23, 2016 An editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican spoke out strongly in favor of the wolf recovery program and in support of the planned introduction of a new pack and cross-fostering of pups in New Mexico

April 28, 2016  A “more wolves, less politics” rally was held outside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) building in Albuquerque urging the agency to move forward with plans to release wolves in the Gila National Forest.  The event also commemorated the day 40 years ago when the wolf was added to the endangered species list.

April 29, 2016 And most positive of all: the news that earlier in the week two captive Mexican wolf pups born just days before at the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri had been transported to New Mexico and placed in a den with a wild pack that had new pups of their own. Known as cross-fostering, it’s one way to get some much-needed genetic diversity into the wild population.  FWS confirmed that the cross-fostering was successful with the alpha female accepting the new pups.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this rare video of a howling wolf shared by FWS.  Identified as 1455 of the Prieto Pack in New Mexico, this male yearling was given the name Tsuki (the Japanese word for moon) in the recent naming contest.

Esprit: Life and Death of a Wolf Pup


3-5-ForJudges1_Page_01So few Mexican wolf pups.  And now we have lost another one.

Earlier this month I wrote about the nine pups born in 2015 and given names in this year’s contest.  (Last year there were seventeen named pups.)  Born in April or May a year ago, the pups, now juveniles, are almost full grown and are old enough to venture out on their own, sometimes for short jaunts away from the pack, other times to pair up and start a new family.

Just as I sat down to start this post about the lives of those young wolves, the monthly update* for March landed in my inbox.  I scrolled to the end of the report hoping there were no mortalities, but found instead the sad news that the Marble Pack pup, fp1442—named Esprit, had died.  The report provided no details, but said her death was under investigation.

The young female had still been traveling with her pack which consisted of her father and one male sibling.  Her mother (AF1340) died earlier in the year when she was captured  during the annual count.

According to Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation  (edited by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani) at this age juvenile wolves are honing their hunting skills while traveling with their families.  They usually leave their natal packs between the ages of 9 and 36 months— when exactly that occurs is a function of “the complex and often subtle interactions within each family.”

Once the Marble Pack lost their alpha female they became a “disrupted family.”  Although this is not uncommon with  field studies pointing to ” . . . much turnover in packs and populations” due to dispersal of juveniles and “deaths from disease, fights with neighboring packs, and hunting by humans,” the Mexican gray wolf population has had an especially conflicted relationship with the human population in its home range.  Over the course of seventeen years (1998-2014) and 111 investigated wolf deaths, 55% were caused by illegal shooting and trapping and another 14% from vehicle collisions.

To increase the numbers and the genetic diversity of the wild population the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to introduce more captive wolves and pups in Arizona and New Mexico this year.  With the population numbering 97 at the end of 2015, down from a high of 110 in 2014, they should implement their plan sooner than later.

********************************************************************************************************To find FWS press releases, monthly monitoring reports, and annual progress reports go to The Mexican Wolf Recovery Program.  For more information and tips on ways to take action on behalf of wolves go to