El Niño arrived in northern Arizona last week. After drenching southern California, it piled two feet of snow in the higher elevations of the White Mountains, the home range of the Bluestem Pack.
It was spring when I last posted an update on the family of lobos. Since then the field team that monitors the endangered Mexican wolf population living in the wild verified that AF1042, the alpha female of the Bluestem Pack, gave birth in April or May to a litter of eight pups, the largest born since reintroduction began in 1998.
Over the last few months the pack has included AF1042, five radio-collared offspring born in 2013 and 2014, and the pups of the year. The alpha male of the pack, AM1341, lost his collar in March (it was designed to drop off when the battery got low.) He may well still be traveling with the family, but is not identified on the monthly status reports. All of the wolves would have helped in the upbringing of the newest members, although two of the juveniles have spent time traveling on their own, perhaps preparing to disperse and join or form new packs.
Late in the summer the pack killed a calf and a cow. From what I can tell, reading the monthly updates, a herd of cows was grazing in a summer pasture that was close to the pack’s territory. The field team first provided a food cache to try and divert the wolves from the livestock, but after the depredations U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) issued a removal order to shoot up to two members of the pack if they killed any more cattle.
Wolf advocates mobilized a letter-writing campaign to protest the order, but the crisis passed without incident. No further depredations occurred, the cows were moved out of the area, and the removal order expired.
And now it’s January, the month the field team conducts a year-end population survey. In years past they have relied on a variety of methods to count the wolves, both collared and uncollared. In the air they use use airplanes and helicopters to track radio-collared wolves and to visually identify and count the others. On the ground they set up remote camera traps and travel backcountry roads and trails in vehicles and on foot looking for tracks and scat.
Once the field work is complete, the team will write their annual report and it will provide not only a count but more detailed information about each pack—information that may answer my questions about the Bluestem Pack. How many of the eight pups survived? Have the two dispersing juveniles found mates? Is AM1341, the alpha male, still running with the pack?
This morning it’s cold and the snow is deep in the White Mountains. But the sky is clear and the wolves with their heavy coats and big feet are well-designed for winter. The pups are almost grown. I can picture the family of lobos weaving through a stand of pines, loping across a mountain meadow, pursuing a small herd of elk.