Counting Wolves

The annual Mexican wolf survey is underway after a brief delay during the government shutdown. I was in Alpine, Arizona on Wednesday and spent the day with the team conducting the count, capture and collar operation.

The first wolf brought in was a yearling, pictured below. In a brief thirty minute exam the male wolf was vaccinated, outfitted with a radio collar, and assigned a studbook number.

Photo by Paula Nixon 1/23/18

Within a couple of hours M1676 was back with the Bear Wallow Pack out in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. To see his release click on the link below.

Losing–The Baldy Pack

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont Flickr via Compfight cc

My short piece about the Baldy Pack and the politics of wolf reintroduction is in the June issue of The Sun in the “Readers Write” column.

As published:

On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. Now, three weeks later, winter has arrived in the White Mountains of Arizona.  Temperatures have dropped to single digits, and there is new snow on the ground.  Undeterred by the cold, two Mexican wolves trot through stands of ponderosa pine and weave among bare aspen trees.  A mated pair, they are tracking a herd of elk.  The heavy undercoats they have grown over the last few months keep them warm and dry.

The wolves know nothing of politics or national borders.  Their territory straddles the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest (ASNF) and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation (FAIR) in the shadow of Mount Baldy.  They are two of fewer than a hundred Mexican gray wolves left in the wild.  Threats to their population abound:  A blow to the head from the hoof of an elk.  Ambush by a mountain lion.  Starvation.  Humans with vehicles and guns.  And inbreeding.  Local resistance—primarily from ranchers and hunters—to reintroducing wolves has made it nearly impossible to move animals bred in captivity into the wild.

Our pair of wolves, though, are not related.  In January or February, if all goes well, they will breed.  By then a new president will have been sworn in.  So far the incoming administration has shown little regard for endangered species.  There are numerous bills and amendments in Congress that aim to cut funding for the reintroduction effort and possibly remove wolves from the endangered-species list, stripping all protection.  These bills are nothing new, but after January 20 we will have a president who is likely to sign them.

The days are growing shorter.  The two wolves run silently through the woods.  They are lucky: they do not know they have lost.


Six months have passed since I wrote those words.  In November and December the two wolves, M1347 and f1445, were “located within their traditional territory in the eastern portion of the FAIR and the northern portion of the ASNF.”  Since then they have not been located according to the monthly status reports.

I hope for the best, but fear the worst.

Update July 13, 2017
Monthly Project Update for May 2017 “It has been more than three months since the Baldy Pack was located and they are now considered fate unknown.”


Twenty-Three Lobo Pups Have New Names

Once again it’s spring and last year’s Mexican wolf pups born in the wild have been given names by kids ranging from kindergartners to 8th-graders.  This was the fifth year of Lobos of the Southwest’s contest and there were so many creative entries.  You can see all of them here.

Artwork courtesy of McKenna H. & Lobos of the Southwest

Eleven wolf families had pups that got names.

Bear Wallow Pack: Zyanya

Bluestem Pack:  Atira, Chico, Keystone, Moonlight

Diamond Pack:  Aleu, Argentum, Rio Espiritu, Spirit, Ulv

Elkhorn Pack:  River

Hoodoo Pack:  Moon Beam, Willow

Iron Creek Pack:  Fortitudo, Zeus

Leopold Pack:  Akela

Luna Pack:  Pluto

Essay courtesy of Adel V. and Lobos of the Southwest

Panther Creek Pack:  Centinela, Da-Kari, Rakesh

Prieto Pack:  Paz, Peaceful

San Mateo Pack:  Sentouki

Some of the names not assigned to pups were reserved in the event more pups (from the 2016 litters) are captured and collared.  Two of those runners-up are featured here.

Thank you to all of the kids who participated and put so much thought and effort into names for the wolf pups.  Long live the lobos!



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


Names for Mexican Wolf Pups

When you name something, you rescue it from indifference, you commit to it the energy of your attention.  Liz Cunningham in Ocean Country

By Alejandro G. 5th Grade

By Alejandro G.
5th Grade

Stella. Auia. Suki. Bosque. Mago. Esprit. Libre. Kiko. Leopold.

Nine pups born in the spring of 2015 to Mexican wolf packs living in the wild have been given names in the fourth annual contest sponsored by Lobos of the Southwest.

Kids ranging from kindergarten through the eighth grade submitted essays, poems, drawings, and other artwork along with their name selections—104 entries in all.

Once again, I had the pleasure and honor of participating as a judge, but it’s a tough job!  We needed a lot more wolf pups to do justice to all of the creative and thoughtful names.  Only those that had been captured, collared, and assigned official studbook numbers by the field team were given names.   Thirteen additional entries, including Faith, (see drawing above and the accompanying essay below by fifth grader Alejandro G.) were selected as runners up and will be assigned if and when other pups are identified.

3-5-ForJudges2_Page_20 (2)

I’ll be featuring more of the essays and artwork on my blog in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime you can see all of the entries here.

A big thank you to each one of the students who put their time, effort, and imagination into naming the newest members of the Mexican wolf packs!

Mexican Gray Wolf Census: The Cost of a Count

On February 18th  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the results of its Mexican gray wolf census—the annual count of the endangered wolves living in the wild.  The number, 97, is down from last year’s 110.

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Each January FWS conducts its survey from the cockpits of an airplane and a helicopter. It’s the best time of year to count  wolves—they are easier to spot in the snow and their population is at its most stable, pups born the prior spring are almost grown and are running with the adults.

As part of the survey a few of the wolves are darted from the helicopter and are transported to a mobile clinic to be examined and outfitted with radio collars. In this Arizona Daily Sun story, “Anatomy of a Wolf Count,” the reporter walks us through the capture and release process.  It usually goes smoothly and within a few hours the wolf is back on its home turf.  But this year two female wolves suffered complications and died after being captured, sad news any time, but especially in a year when the population decreased significantly.  Because the count is “as of the end of the year,” both wolves are included in the total.

One of the wolves, F1340, died within minutes of being darted.  She was a three-year-old born into the Bluestem Pack in 2013, captured and collared during last year’s census without incident.

Tracking her history through monthly status reports, I discovered that F1340 began to travel away from her pack about this time last year and was spotted by the field team with a male wearing a non-functioning radio collar.  In the spring it appeared she might be expecting pups based on signals transmitted from her radio collar, indicating she was staying in one area, not traveling, probably digging a den.

By mid-summer the field team reported seeing the two adults with five pups.  The new wolf family was named the Marble Pack.  They established a territory in the northwest-central portion of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in the White Mountains of Arizona.

In August the field team captured and collared one of the pups, a male, and assigned him studbook number mp1440.  The next month they captured a female pup and gave her number fp1442.  Their father, the alpha male of the pack, remained unidentified.

In what should have been a routine capture operation on January 28th, the field team darted both alphas and one of the pups of the Marble Pack.  As reported above the alpha female, F1340, died quickly and unexpectedly (a necropsy conducted at FWS’ forensics lab may provide more answers about the cause of her death).  The pup, fp1442, was checked for a foot injury and released.  The alpha male, identified as M1243*, formerly of the Paradise Pack, was re-collared and released.

The Marble Pack, now incomplete without its alpha female, may or may not have stayed together.

February is breeding season for Mexican wolves (they mate only once per year).  There is no way of knowing how it might have turned out, but if F1340 had survived she might now be preparing a den for a new litter.  It’s likely the yearling pups would have continued to travel with M1243, hunting, bringing food to F1340, continuing to mature—preparing to disperse, find mates, establish territories.

Even without the alpha female it’s impossible to predict the fate of the Marble Pack.   These wolves, born and raised in the wild, are resilient.  I’ve followed F1340’s original pack, the Bluestems, for years and time after time the family of wolves has survived shootings, wildfire, challenges from other wolves, encounters with livestock and humans, and probably countless other things not revealed by a radio collar or field observation.

For now all we can do is hope.


*According to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program Reports #14, #15 and #16 (years 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively) M1243 was born to the Paradise Pack in 2011.  He left his natal pack late in 2012. When his collar stopped transmitting in 2013, he was considered “fate unknown.”

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

The Bluestem Pack–Late 2015

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

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.

For more information about the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program check out USFWS‘s website.  And to learn more about how you can help go to Lobos of the Southwest.






 Photo Credit: ericwagner via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ericwagner via Compfight cc

Wild horses, often referred to as mustangs, are part of the landscape in New Mexico.  For me the thrill of seeing them is always tinged with worry about their welfare.  They are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, but in reality there are too many of them competing for too little grass and water on the open range they inhabit.  This recent article in the Santa Fe Reporter covered the dilemma in New Mexico, but it’s not a problem unique to our state. Many other western states are dealing with the same issue.

Enter Ben Masters, a wildlife biologist, recently graduated from Texas A & M.  When budget constraints forced him to rely on a few of these wild equines (supplementing his domestic horses) on a trek along the Continental Divide, he discovered that they made great trail horses.  It was then that Masters hatched the idea of an expedition on horseback traveling from Mexico to Canada using only mustangs.

Starting in Arizona, Ben and three college buddies and more than a dozen adopted, recently-trained horses set out across the country.  Their adventure is captured in the new documentary Unbranded.  Along the way the audience also hears viewpoints from various stakeholders in the debate—ranchers, government officials, animal rights activists.

By the time the lights came up I was convinced I must adopt a burro, but have yet to figure out where to keep it.

For more about the making of the documentary check out this  Radio Café interview with Phill Baribeau, the filmmaker.







The Bluestem Pack–A Story for Mother’s Day

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

 Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

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.



Names for the 2014 Mexican Wolf Pups

Scarlett. Dark Fang. Howl. Elpis. Prosperor.*

These are five of the 91 names submitted in the third annual Mexican wolf pup naming contest hosted by Lobos of the Southwest.  Students from kindergarten through eighth grade competed to name 17 pups born in the wild in 2014 (38  were documented in the annual census, but only those captured and collared received names.)

I had the honor of being a judge this year for the first time and spent three days looking at artwork, reading essays, considering names and marvelling at the creativity that went into the entries.  It was a tough job and after submitting my rankings I awaited the results as eagerly, I’m sure, as the students.

Apache_DaisyKThe winning entries—Tempesta, Fuerza, Apache, Pecos, Griselda, Dakotah, Essential, Vida, Century, Atoyaatl, Adero, Survivor, Guardian, Monty, Tiara, Bravery, and Mia Tuk—can all be seen here along with the artwork and essays.

The wolf pups, born in the spring of 2014, will soon be a year old and are almost full grown.  They spent the winter learning to hunt with their families/packs.  Some will stay for another year, helping out with the new pups, but others will start to travel on their own, looking for mates and trying to establish their own territories.

One of my favorite entries is the one pictured above. Apache.  It’s a great name for a wolf, but it’s also a success story in the recovery effort of the Mexican gray wolves, just barely saved from extinction.

Apache, assigned the official studbook number of m1383, is a male wolf born to the  Hawks Nest Pack that runs in Arizona in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

He is the great grandpup of the original Bluestem Pack alpha female (F521), named Estrella (Spanish for star), by the zookeepers at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo when she was born in 1997.  She was released into the wild with her mate and pups in 2002 and lived a long and productive life.

One of her daughters (F1042), Apache’s grandmother,  is the current alpha female of the Bluestem Pack.  F1042 had four pups in 2012 that received names in the first naming contest—Huckleberry, Keeper, Little Wild, and Clover.  All have died (two in illegal shootings and one in a routine capture by the field team) except Clover (F1280).

Clover dispersed from her family, the Bluestem Pack, late in 2013, found a mate, and became the alpha female of the Hawks Nest Pack.  Apache was born in her first litter of pups.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that in two years  I’ll be writing about Apache’s first pups.

*These entries all received honorable mentions.