Sunday, March 24, 2013

#LoboWeek: A Wild Perspective

Mexican Gray Wolf AF1056. January 2011

It's day three of #LoboWeek, a national movement honoring a milestone for Mexican gray recovery - the 15th Anniversary of the lobos’ return to the wild. Enormous thanks to Wolf Conservation Center friend and supporter, Melissa Ruszczyk, for offering a special point of view on lobo recovery in her own words  

A Wild Perspective
by Melissa Ruszczyk


Wolves embody so much of what humans have distanced themselves from. They reflect characteristics of our own primitive species, so much of what we are missing in ourselves. Maybe that’s why many of us are so fascinated with them; they represent something that we are missing, a raw wild spirit which we lost as our own species derived into what we are today. And for that same reason, maybe it’s also why many humans fear them. As we celebrate fifteen years of hard work and dedication since the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) to their rightful home in the southwest, I’d like to share a story from the standpoint of being fortunate enough to work with the wild counterparts.

Growing up I wasn’t afraid of wolves. Public media and childhood stories thankfully didn’t imprint upon me to fear such a beautiful creature. When I was 15 years old I wrote a list of goals I’d wanted to accomplish in life. The number one goal was to “In some way help with the reintroduction of wolves”. At the time, I knew very little about wolves and had no clue how this grand idea would ever happen but I was drawn to this species and felt that since there weren’t many around… I would take it upon myself to help change that. In January of 2011, 14 years later, I found myself driving to Alpine, AZ for my new field job as an intern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. My first day on the job I held back happy tears as I remembered my list of goals and realized I was accomplishing a childhood dream.

I spent 5 exhilarating months learning about wolves, humans, and especially myself while traversing the beautiful landscapes of New Mexico and Arizona. It was a bit of a culture shock at first to be in an area where most people viewed wolves differently than I did which only made me work harder to want to help and protect this species. I had many duties that varied everyday and even changed as the seasons did. My main job was to use radio telemetry to track collared wolves. I had a job… tracking wolves. No better job in the world! The experiences and memories that occurred everyday made me feel so privileged to have gotten the chance to work on the project. After leaving in late May, my main objective was to return to the wolves as soon as possible. By chance in the summer of 2012, I was hired by the U.S. Forest Service as a field technician in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, part of the same study area as the wolves. I wasted no time in contacting friends on the wolf project to see if I could volunteer on my 3 days off from my full time job. With that, became the summer I didn’t get any sleep; the best summer of my life. It was a busy season with new packs being named, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire (the largest fire in NM history) roaring through the Gila, daily monitoring and trapping, trying to obtain pack visuals for pup counts, and conversing with landowners about wolf-related conflicts. I spent most of the summer monitoring the Dark Canyon pack whose territory was affected by the fire. Then towards the end of summer I was asked to focus my efforts on the San Mateo pack to try and obtain a pup count. At the time San Mateo was comprised of 3 collared wolves: AF903, AM1157, and m1249 (the lowercase “m” meaning he was younger than 24 months). Their home range consists of serene landscapes of open fields and mesas intermittently laced with pinion pine and juniper ascending into mountainous views of ponderosa pine and gambel oak trees—prime wolf real-estate. By this time in the summer wolves are using rendezvous sites, safe havens for the pack to hang out and for adults to leave the pups alone or with another pack-mate while others hunt and patrol their territory. These sites can change frequently depending on availability of food, water, and security. The first time I set out to locate San Mateo I found all three collared wolves, via telemetry, in one location on a small slope across a bowl-shaped field. I was on the opposing slope about ¾ of a mile away from where the telemetry was picking up the wolves’ signals. Between us was a field full of about 50 elk and 15 pronghorn, as well as a large group of ravens and turkey vultures flying up from where the wolves seemed to be. Ravens and turkey vultures in large numbers are the telltale signs there is a kill in the immediate area. Since my objective was to obtain pup visuals, I was uncertain if this was a rendezvous site or just a kill site from which the contents would be brought back to where ever the pups waiting. Not wanting to cross the field, most likely making myself fully visible to the wolves, or walk around it only to create chaos by disturbing the ungulates and possibly alarming the wolves, I left the area so they could eat in peace. The following day I returned with a trail camera and some smelly lure to attract any passersby. My thought was to find trails they were using and set up the camera to try obtaining pup pictures that way. The good news was all three telemetry signals were still in the area. With my binoculars I scoured the opposing slope for wolves but didn’t see any so I set out to check for tracks or scat and a good place for my camera. In no time, I found an old forest road that my map depicted as leading to a stock tank in the area where the wolves currently were. I began searching the road. Right away I found fresh adult wolf tracks. I couldn’t see the stock tank from my location and again was cautious about disturbing the wolves especially if there was a possibility of catching them on my camera. The last thing I wanted to do was make them move their rendezvous site because of my presence particularly since they were in a good location with lots of wild prey and water. I set up my camera with a view of the trail, put lure on a bush opposite the camera, and then went off to search for the Dark Canyon pack.

The next day I returned to check my camera. The wolves were still in the same vicinity too which led me to believe this really was their rendezvous site! As I flipped through the memory card I was disheartened to only see one lone coyote sniffing the lured bush. The day was young though and the sun was warming the surroundings as a gentle breeze blew in my direction, perfect for not spreading my scent towards the wolves. I was envisioning them just hanging out on the opposing slope, relaxing under a tree and the potential pups playing with each other. So I grabbed my binoculars from the truck, found a tree on my slope, and laid on my belly with my binocs focused towards the wolves. Almost immediately I saw AM1157 walking along the high end of the slope! He’s easily recognizable because of his large size. I was elated and eagerly followed him visually. When he disappeared behind a bush I began searching the hillside for more hidden wolves. They were there for sure, I just had to be patient. It’s funny how many objects can look like a wolf when you’re focusing so hard to find just one. About 40 minutes later I noticed a dark spot under a tree that had just emerged from the ground. It was a wolf sitting up! Then the tall grass next to it violently shook as 4 legs appeared flailing about in the air… another wolf laying on its back having a good scratch from the ground. I could barely breathe with my excitement; I didn’t want to move a muscle in case I missed something! The two wolves then got up and sauntered over to AM1157 who appeared from his hiding place. All three collared wolves then found another tree to lie down under and vanished by seemingly melting into the grass. I knew I had played my cards right by holding back and not pushing to get a visual. It’s not too often that wolves are in an open area where you have the chance to observe them without them seeing or smelling you. Over the next few hours I sat watch and enjoyed the occasional scent markings and changing of day beds made by these three wolves. They were so content and so was I. When a late afternoon rain storm came through I felt it was time to go. The wolves had gotten up too once more and walked single-file across the slope and then turned onto a well worn path that went upslope and trailed off into the distance. They followed each other upslope and as the last wolf in line was to disappear it abruptly stopped and looked back downslope. Suddenly 4 small furry creatures emerged from the grasses and bounded upslope to follow the rest of the pack. Four wolf pups—I was speechless. So many thoughts ran through me at once. I couldn’t believe it! I had just seen something that very few people in the world have ever had the opportunity to see. Not only had I spent the day watching Mexican gray wolves in their natural habitat but just as the day ended they revealed their pups which until that moment, no one even knew existed! The emotions I felt were so heavy and I found myself wishing that others could have seen what I saw especially those who view these wolves in such a negative light. The events that day made me feel as if I was truly a part of nature. I’d felt the warm sun, the cool breeze, the rain as it began to fall, and I’d seen the wolves. Upon returning to the office and writing the number “4” on the white board next to the pup counts for San Mateo, I felt very proud. Proud that I accomplished something I set out to do but even more so because I was a part of something bigger that had a common goal. It wasn’t just me hanging out watching wolves all day, it was all the years, the millions of people, organizations, agencies, zoos and sanctuaries, and concerned public who put time, effort, and money into this project because they shared in the argument that the wolves deserved to be there. All the people who wrote letters, made phone calls, donated, attended meetings, reached out to make their sentiments known and worked together to educate those who wrongfully viewed the lobos. That’s the best way to describe my emotions upon seeing those pups. I felt like I was representing everyone involved since the beginning and they were seeing them through my eyes too. The start of 2012 had presented a minimum population estimate of 58 wolves for the 2011 year. At such a small number, adding 4 to it is spectacular news. This past January was the annual helicopter capture which resulted in the 2012 year end minimum population estimate of 75 wolves! The highest count yet over these past 15 years and a big increase from the 2011 count. The lobos still need help and continued support though. Seventy-five wolves is a vast improvement in one year but it’s still not enough of a population boost to have a self-sustaining wild population without continued support and protection under the Endangered Species Act. So much has gone into reintroducing this subspecies, a symbol of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, and there is still a long road yet to be traveled. The most important advice I can give is to be a voice for the wolves. Advocate on their behalf, educate those people in need, and continue to raise awareness to the plight of the Mexican gray wolf. With that, the wolves will still having a fighting chance to continue reclaiming their historic range in which their own voices will still be heard.

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