May 1st: Deep beneath the winter leaf litter that covers the forest floor the earth responds to the increasingly direct radiation of our yellow star. The first wildflowers of the new season push up green leaves through the brown debris.
—Chet Raymo in 365 Starry Nights
Somewhere in the White Mountains, out in the stands of Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, and just-budding aspens, the Bluestem Pack is running, hunting, sleeping. Over the last few weeks winter has begun to give way to spring and the rhythms and patterns of this wolf family’s daily life have also likely changed.
Springtime comes slowly to this part of Arizona–it snowed eight inches at Big Lake in the heart of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests on the last weekend in April, but the days are growing longer and warmer. The swallows have returned and are building nests, but it’s still too early for the wildflowers to bloom. This week both snow and thunderstorms were predicted.
At last count the Bluestem Pack included the alpha pair and some of their offspring born in 2013 and 2014. Most of them wear radio collars. With special receivers the field team that monitors the recovery effort can pinpoint their whereabouts. On my desk I have the latest published telemetry flight locations. Given the traveling nature of wolves, the three-week-old report was “outdated from the moment it was collected” according to a note on the update.
But, map that data (as the field team does), collected over weeks and months, and a picture begins to emerge—an outline of the Bluestem’s territory. Last year the pack claimed almost 300 square miles. When I pair that information with what is known about the natural history of wolves and the specific lives of the pack members, I can begin to picture what their daily routine might be like right now.
If all has gone well for the wolves AF1042, the alpha female, is holed up in a den somewhere nursing pups. She is an experienced mother, has raised five litters. Before giving birth she would have prepared a safe place under cover, warm and dry, for the pups to spend the first few weeks of their lives. Born deaf and blind, the newborns are not able to regulate their body heat. AF1042’s sole responsibility, and it’s a big one, is to feed and warm the tiny wolf pups.
And the rest of the pack? Some of the yearlings and two-year-olds may be starting to disperse, traveling on their own looking for mates. Others including the alpha male will remain close to the den, hunting and bringing back food for AF1042, who is only able to leave her place with the pups for brief moments to stretch her legs and to tend to her own needs.
At two weeks the pups will open their eyes. A week later they will be able to hear and stay warm on their own. And within another week they will toddle to the mouth of the den poking their heads outside, meeting their pack mates, getting their first look at the great big world.
AF1042 will get a well-deserved break—a chance to run through the newly green meadows—knowing that the other wolves will be keeping a watchful eye on the newest pack members.
It may be weeks before the field team is able to confirm whether or not the Bluestem Pack has new pups. In the meantime a red wolf (another endangered wolf, native to the southeastern U.S.) at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) gave birth to a litter on May 2nd. This camera in her den provides a rare opportunity to watch a wolf mother taking care of her pups in the first few days and weeks their lives.
Note: Many thanks to Leanne at Big Lake who was kind enough to answer my questions about springtime in the White Mountains and to WCC for allowing us to watch Salty and her pups.