Norma’s Leap of Faith

So many people have put so much time and effort into the recovery of the endangered population of Mexican gray wolves.  One of the earliest was Norma Ames the team leader of the group that wrote the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan published in 1982.  Below is a brief piece I wrote about her. #LoboWeek

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

The wolf presented the mangled trophy to Norma–a dead ground squirrel.  That was the moment she began to believe the beleaguered Mexican gray wolf had a shot at making a comeback in the wild.

Norma Ames, trained as a biologist, was the assistant chief of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department in 1971 when she adopted two endangered wolf pups born in captivity at the Department’s Ghost Ranch facility.  She built an enclosure on her large, remote property in the forest, a place to raise and socialize the pups.

Five years after she took those first pups home (she later adopted a second pair), Mexican gray wolves, cousins to the northern gray wolf, were added to the endangered species list.  In constant conflict with ranchers in the Southwest, their population had been decimated by relentless trapping, shooting, and poisoning.   Seven wolves, called the McBride line for the trapper who captured them in the late 70s (all that he could locate), were brought in to start a breeding program.

The day Norma realized her wolves could and would still hunt she stopped the socializing, began to keep her distance.  She strove to keep them as wild as possible, hoping that someday they might be reintroduced into their native habitat.

In the early 80s Norma headed up the team that published a recovery plan for the Mexican wolf.

From the time I picked up and read the report with Norma’s name on the cover page, I wanted to know more about her, but where to go to ask questions about a woman who wrote a relatively obscure government report more than 30 years ago.  It turns out someone did find Norma and asked at least some of my questions.  Peter Steinhart recounted the story of her role in the recovery of Mexican wolves in his 1995 book The Company of Wolves.

Norma’s wolves weren’t destined for the wild.  Their lineage, Ghost Ranch, was considered tainted, not pure wolf.  She stopped breeding them and, one by one, they died of old age.  In 1987 after she had retired and was preparing to sell her place and move she had to make the tough decision to euthanize the lone survivor.  She did it to save the wolf from living out its life in a cage at a zoo.

But in 1997, the year before the first McBride wolves were released in the mountains of Arizona, genetic testing confirmed that the Ghost Ranch lineage, which had been maintained in New Mexico, was pure and the two lines, plus another from Mexico, were crossbred, giving the population a much-needed genetic boost and a better chance at recovery.

Wolves mate once a year in the winter, typically in February.  Norma died in February of 2005, seven years into the reintroduction effort.  Recovery was inching forward, with long term survival of Mexican wolves still not assured.  But by then there were eleven families of wolves running free in Arizona and New Mexico and several of the breeding wolves had been born in the wild.

More than twenty wolf pups were born in the spring of 2005 with at least ten still surviving at the end of the year.   Some of them carried Ghost Ranch genes.

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