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.

 

 

 

 

Bobcat Winter

Washington—Officials are searching for a female bobcat they say has escaped from the National Zoo.  Ollie, a 25 pound female bobcat was last seen in her enclosure around 7:30 a.m. Monday. USA Today 1/30/17

Bobcat
Photo by Paula Nixon

Winter this year seemed to be filled with bobcat sightings and bobcat stories.

Back in January, I wrote about seeing a bobcat outside my kitchen window. I got a good look at him, but was disappointed to find he had managed to avoid my wildlife camera strapped to a nearby piñon tree.   A few days later I got the above shot—maybe the same cat, but no way to know for sure.

I was ready to post the photo when I ran across this story about a bobcat in Sedona, Arizona.  Game and Fish officials tried to trap the animal after it bit and scratched four people, but ended up having to kill it when it evaded capture.  Tests confirmed what they suspected—the bobcat had rabies.  I decided to call my local game department to find out if there was anything unusual about seeing a bobcat walk through my backyard in broad daylight, not once, but twice.

A few weeks passed and I still hadn’t made the call when I saw the bobcat again.  This time he passed within fifteen feet of the back door, crossing the patio while Dave and I watched in amazement.  He never turned to look at us and seemed to be focused on something that only he could sense, maybe a rabbit.  He flicked his stub of a tail and was gone.

Rick Winslow with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish listened when I told him about my multiple bobcat sightings and said it wasn’t uncommon to see them out and about during the day.  He assured me that rabies is extremely rare in our area—the last case he could recall was years ago in the southern part of New Mexico.

And since then, not a sign of the bobcat.  I’m certain he’s still out there, just keeping a low profile.

After a two-plus day walkabout in the leafy wilds of northern Washington an escaped bobcat returned to the National Zoo and walked right into a trap where some “goodies” had been left for her Wednesday, zookeepers said.
Ben Nuckols—Associated Press 2/1/17

 

The Legacy of Mexican Wolf F521

Female Mexican Gray Wolf at Wildlife West Nature Park
Photo Credit: Paula Nixon

The deadline to submit comments on the 2017 Wolf Release Proposal is tonight at 11:59 pm.  If you have read it, maybe you wondered about the wolf called F521 (her studbook number) and how it came to be that so many of the small population of Mexican wolves living in the wild are so closely related to her.

I first discovered F521 years ago in a monthly status report.

She was born on the side of a mountain in 1997 at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs.  Zookeepers called her Estrella, star in Spanish.  She and her littermates were special because of their genetics, a mix of two of the three lineages of the small captive population.

At the age of five, F521 was released with her mate and family (2 juvenile pups and five new pups) in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was the summer of 2002, early on in the Mexican wolf reintroduction effort (at the time there were approximately 26 wolves living in the wild), and no one knew how this family, named the Bluestem Pack, would adapt to life in the wild.

In the first few weeks they had to be hazed away from a ranch and killed a blue heeler before settling in and chasing down their first elk.  They established a territory and the next spring F521 gave birth to her first litter of wild-born pups.  She remained the alpha (breeding) female of the Bluestem Pack for six years, outliving one mate, finding another, and continuing to raise new litters of pups each year.  Some of those pups went on to establish new packs and have litters of their own.

In 2008 one of F521’s female offspring, F1042, replaced her as the alpha female in the pack.

The old wolf, probably no longer welcome in her pack, sometimes ran alone and sometimes ran with another pack.  In December of 2010 she was found dead in the Gila National Forest, killed in an illegal shooting.  F521 was thirteen.

Once again it is breeding season for wolves and the Bluestem Pack still lives in the White Mountains with F1042 as the alpha female.  In late April or early May  pups will be born.

The numbers cited in the 2017 proposal are surprising and alarming. Of the eighteen potential breeding pairs living in the wild in 2017, three  have one adult that is a descendant of F521 and fifteen have both adults that are descendants of F521. Inbreeding has always posed a threat for Mexican gray wolves.  They came so close to extinction that there were only seven founders when breeding in captivity began.

Fifteen years ago when F521 was released in the wild she was a star not only in name, but also in the genetic potential she offered to the wild population.  She did her part—  she lived wild and free for more than eight years and raised lots of pups.

The most recent estimate of Mexican wolves living in the wild is 113. A combination of too few wolves being released and too many wolves being killed illegally has led to the current dire situation.

More wolves from the captive population need to be released immediately.

The 2017 proposal is a start—2 families and 10 cross-fostered pups—a move in the right direction.

Please take a moment to send an email to mexicanwolfcomments@fws.gov in support of the proposed releases.

 

New Snow and a Bobcat Sighting

The wild things that live on my farm are reluctant to tell me, in so many words, how much of my township is included in their daily or nightly beat. —Aldo Leopold

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting at the kitchen table reading A Sand County Almanac when a shadow on the fresh snow outside caught my eye.  Thinking it was probably a rabbit, I went to the window for a closer look and was surprised to see a bobcat, unmistakable with his short tail and tufted ears.

I ran downstairs and out the back door thinking he would  have disappeared into the trees, but found that he had, instead, circled around the big boulder and car parked in the drive.  He stopped short when he saw me and we studied each other across the gravel driveway for a few moments before he turned and vanished.

Bobcat Tracks. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Bobcat Tracks.
Photo by: Paula Nixon

I followed his tracks and discovered he had come from a neighbor’s yard via a small opening between two latillas in the coyote fence, just barely wide enough for a 15 to 20 pound cat to squeeze through.

Bobcats are not uncommon in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (I sometimes catch them on my camera trap), but this was only my second sighting in twenty years—the perfect excuse to get out of the house and enjoy the first snow of 2017!

9 Hours 53 Minutes 3 Seconds

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake.
—Timothy Steele

2016-12-22-00.16.59.jpg.jpeg

Photo by: Paula Nixon

Before this shortest day of the year is over I’ll share these lines from Timothy Steele’s poem Toward the  Winter Solstice and my shot of the L.A. sky, taken yesterday afternoon.

Here’s to a joyful and peaceful holiday season.  There will be lots of work to do in the new year.

The Name Game

Along the way, as I often do, I got distracted.

Last month I was writing a few words about my attempt to identify a bird on power pole. Raven or crow? Corvus corax or Corvus brachyrhynchos? Their scientific names—binomials, genus and species—piqued my interest.

What did they mean? Did they give any clues as to the differences between the birds?

The two-part names are usually Latin, but sometimes Greek or sometimes something else altogether.  They are standardized so that everyone knows exactly what we are talking about when we refer to that noisy black bird scavenging in the parking lot as a Corvus brachyrhynchos.

I started with Google, but didn’t find the answer easily using a Latin translation website, so I asked one of my local reference librarians who sent me back to the internet.  I kept scrolling and cobbled together what I thought was the answer.  Corvus means crow.  And, from what I could tell brachyrhyncos seemed to mean short-nosed.  But I wasn’t completely certain I was right and, worse, I wasn’t satisfied.

Still trolling, I discovered a book published in 2014 called Latin for Bird Lovers: Over 3000 bird names explored and explained written by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr.  Bingo.  But my library didn’t have a copy.

I published my raven or crow blog post without defining their scientific names and  waited for the book to arrive in the mail.

LatinForBirdLovers

It didn’t disappoint.  A compact hard cover, it’s the perfect companion to my birding field guides. The definitions are arranged dictionary style with lots of color illustrations and supplemental information—a whole page devoted to the Corvus genus.

I’ve been going through it slowly.  Looking up birds as they appear in my backyard, first in the field guide to learn their scientific name and then in the book of definitions.

Of course, I started with the ravens and crows.  Corvus means crow in Latin and corax means raven, also in Latin.  Brachyrynchos, a two part word: brachy means short in Greek and rynchus, bill in Latin.  That makes the common raven in my back yard the “crow raven” and his smaller counterpart, the American crow, the “short-billed crow.”

The red-breasted American robin that has recently returned to my bird bath is the Turdus migratorius or “wandering thrush.” The midnight blue Steller’s jay with its saucy crest is the Cyanocitta stelleri or “dark blue jay named for the German naturalist, George Steller.”

With its three thousand definitions you would think it would be years before I ran up against the book’s limits, but it happened quickly when a red-crowned, zebra-striped bird showed up at the feeder.  It is known as the ladder-backed woodpecker or Picoides scalaris.  Picoides means woodpecker-shaped, but scalaris is not defined.

Looks like I’ll be on the hunt for the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names if I really want to know the answer.  Referenced by the authors in their introduction, it boasts 20,000 definitions.  I checked, but my library doesn’t have it.

 

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 mexicanwolves.org

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.

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year!

Perhaps to those familiar with their ways
The sight would not have been so startling:
A deer fording the Missouri in the early afternoon.
–Kevin Cole*

 Photo Credit: ahisgett via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ahisgett via Compfight cc

I had a few of those moments in 2015:  a family of skunks scurrying down a dark, wet street; a butterfly landing on my sleeve for just a moment; a young buck drinking from the birdbath in my backyard.  Moments that made me hold my breath and stay still.

Thank you for reading my blog.  I wish you a wonderful 2016 filled with magical moments!

*Here is the link to Kevin Cole’s poem “Deer Fording the Missouri in the Early Afternoon”

 

 

 

 

A Story (with kittens) for Christmas

The Kitten Whisperer

David Schultz as Santa 2015 Photo by Paula Nixon

David Schultz as Santa 2015
Photo by Paula Nixon

Sixty-five?  Seventy?  It’s hard to say.  David looks a little like an outlaw biker: pale yellow bandana, folded neatly and tied into a narrow headband; metallic wraparound sunglasses.  He also looks a bit like Santa Claus:  long white hair with a matching shaggy beard.   Underneath the shades is a friendly pair of blue eyes.

He worked as a grocery store manager and landscaper in California before he moved to New Mexico twenty-odd years ago.  These days he spends most of his time rescuing kittens in Santa Fe.

Over a cup of coffee he told me about a family of cats that he had recently taken in.  The three kittens, all with eye infections were easy enough to capture, but the mother had to be lured into a trap.  He doctored their eyes, fed them, and, most importantly, introduced them to the voice and hands of a kind human being.  Soon they were purring when he held them and gobbling up their mom’s canned food.  Once they were weaned and comfortable with people, the rescue group David works with put them in a foster home and posted their pictures and story on a pet adoption board.

Two of the kittens, Macky and Marco, had Siamese markings and found homes quickly, but it took longer for the third one.  Maez, named by David for the street where he and his brothers were discovered, had a fluffy black coat.  Shortly before we talked, the half-grown cat was finally adopted by a family that included two little girls.  They renamed the gangly feline with big green eyes Shadow Maez.

David looked at his digital watch, time to go.  He had set traps earlier in the day behind the Salvation Army and needed to check them.

I followed him over to the deserted, weedy parking lot.  No luck.  The towel-wrapped traps were empty, the food untouched. We saw the tail end of a cat; it paused briefly to glance over its shoulder at us before it slipped away.   A woman from the dilapidated apartment complex next door came to the chain link fence, concerned about the kittens.  David assured her they were fine.  He would keep setting and monitoring the traps until he caught them all.

We walked back to our cars and David opened the side door of his white van.  Wire racks were filled with the tools of his trade:  cans of cat food, bags of kibble, a stack of clean, folded towels.  He pulled one of the long, rectangular-shaped wire traps out to show me his invention—a piece of Masonite with a small hole, about the size of my fist, cut in it.  He uses the baffle, slipped in front of the trap door, to ensure that he catches the kittens first, leaving the mother free to care for her offspring until all of them can be captured.

Before we said goodbye David pointed out his new personalized license plate.  It reads:  CATRESQ.

I wrote this story about David a couple of years ago when I was working with Felines and Friends.  I caught up with him earlier this month at Petco where he was doing Santa pet photos. During a lull he filled me in on the details of his  most recent rescue kittens—Sheldon, Selver, and Saleena.  The three, tired out from playing, were snuggled down together in a fleece bed in the nearby adoption room.  By now I hope each one has found the perfect forever home, just in time for Christmas!