Appointment with a Wolf

F638 or Jasmine as she is known at the Albuquerque BioPark lives ‘off exhibit’ and is not visible to the public so it took a special request to see her.

Jasmine in her living area. Photo courtesy of Albuquerque BioPark

Jasmine in her living area.
Photo courtesy of Albuquerque BioPark

But before I get ahead of myself. . .

Back in 2013 I wrote my first post for this blog about a family of endangered Mexican gray wolves called the Bluestem Pack.  By then they had lived in the wild for eleven years.  They were on their second alpha female and third or fourth alpha male and had raised lots of pups that went on to find mates and establish new packs. To this day the Bluestem Pack still runs in the White Mountains of Arizona.

The original members of the Bluestem Pack were born in captivity.  The near-famous (at least in wolf circles) F521, the alpha female of the pack, was born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs in the late 90s. In 2002 she and her mate along with seven of their offspring—five new pups and two juveniles–were released in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  The juveniles were born into F521’s first litter of four pups in 2000 (at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility), but only two of them were released with the family.  One of those wolves not released was F638.

It was a hot August afternoon. The zoo was quiet, the kids back in school. I arrived early so I could visit the public wolf exhibit before my meeting with the zoo manager.  The Albuquerque BioPark or Rio Grande Zoo as it used to be known has participated in the species recovery plan for more than thirty years.  Sixty-nine wolf pups were born at the zoo, helping reestablish the nearly extinct population of lobos native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  But it has been almost ten years since the zoo had a new litter of pups.

That could change next spring. The zoo has two new residents, Kawi a two-year-old female and Apache a five-year-old male.  Their enclosure, visible from above, is large with pine and cottonwood trees, boulders and logs, wild grasses.  It can be hard to spot them, but on this day the two were chasing each other around the perimeter with Kawi pausing for a brief belly flop in the horse trough.

Back at the zoo’s administrative office I met Lynn Tupa, the zoo manager, and we returned to the wolf exhibit, this time walking on the backside of the animal exhibits—even quieter than the front of the zoo.

Lynn unlocked the gate to access the wolf habitat, a secured area with access to the public exhibit and two other, smaller naturalized habitats.  The wolves have minimal exposure to humans, so they are wary, but Lynn had told me Jasmine is curious and she approached the chain link fence, stopping a few feet back, when she heard us.  Long legs, big paws, a multi-colored and grizzled coat, inquisitive eyes—a rare up-close look at a lobo.

Jasmine is sixteen years old—ancient in wolf years—and will live out her life here. She was never released in the wild, but did have one litter of pups in 2006, her contribution to the survival of endangered lobos.  She is past the age of breeding and lives with a much younger male wolf. They keep each other company.

Within moments my visit was over.

I thought about Jasmine and Kawi and Apache as I drove away.  Jasmine’s family has contributed much to the growth of the small wild population, but too many of the lobos running in their native habitat are now related to the Bluestem Pack.  New blood is badly needed if they are going to continue to survive and thrive.

That’s where Kawi and Apache come in.  Winter is mating season and if all goes well they may have a litter of pups in late April—a new wolf family with the potential to run free in the pine forests and grassy meadows of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, back where they belong.

Note:  Many thanks to Lynn Tupa at Albuquerque BioPark for providing access and answering my questions.  Also thank you to Peter Siminski, the official studbook keeper for the Mexican wolf recovery project, for filling in the blanks about F638’s history.

For more information about the current status of the wild population of Mexican gray wolves check out these two recent articles:  Cornered by Elizabeth Miller in the Santa Fe Reporter (June 15-21, 2016) and Line of Descent by Cally Carswell in High Country News (August 8, 2016).

 

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