Cover Stories

Northward Peril

Lone Mexican wolf’s unprecedented journey from Arizona to Northern New Mexico spotlights fraught balance of reintroduction program

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

The young female wolf just up and left her pack.

Mexican wolves will do that; it’s a behavior called dispersal. And in December, she set out from southeastern Arizona, traveling through New Mexico and leaving her Rocky Prairie Pack behind.

Biologists watched her movements, courtesy of a radio collar affixed to her neck, like the necks of many of her species. And for a while, we all waited as she tested the anxious equilibrium of Mexican wolf recovery—until, that is, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish employees tracked her via helicopter and captured her on private land not far from Angel Fire.

I’m certain we’ll learn more about her in the coming weeks. And what happens next is still up in the air. But sometimes, it’s the journey that awes us.

Tracks, like this Mexican wolf paw print, help biologists track wolves during annual ground surveys. (Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team)

Late last year, the nearly 2-year-old wild wolf traversed the Gila National Forest, snubbing or avoiding prospective mates living in New Mexico. By mid-December, she’d made her way clear to where Interstate 25 bisects Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge north of Socorro. She crossed the highway and cut into the Manzano Mountains, then returned to the interstate. After some back and forth in the area, in early January she crossed Interstate 40 near Moriarty. There, she hopped back over the highway and trotted east toward Santa Rosa.

Then on Jan. 9, she crossed I-40 again and headed, definitively, northward.

At that point, she was walking 20 to 30 miles a day. “She probably covered close to 60 miles in two days and her last location was 20 miles from Las Vegas, New Mexico,” Brady McGee, Mexican Wolf recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told me on Jan. 11. “She’s in the wide-open plains in the middle of nowhere...That’s not her territory. She needs to head toward mountains.”

Even if she had quietly ducked into national forest lands full of tasty elk—or, if she had been able to navigate another 600 miles to Yellowstone and mate with a northern gray wolf—unknowingly, the intrepid wolf sealed her fate when she crossed I-40.

Dispersal, when wolves seek new territories in the early winter, is natural, intrinsic, even. What happens when they travel outside the domain humans have designated for them is anything but.

Mexican wolves are only allowed to live within the “Mexican wolf experimental population area,” in southern and central Arizona and New Mexico. It spans a landscape almost 20 times larger than the original recovery area for Mexican wolves. But under the government’s management plan, this subspecies of wolf isn’t supposed to cross I-40.

South of the highway, ranchers can legally harass or haze Mexican wolves away from their livestock, McGee says. North of I-40, where wolves enjoy full protection under the Endangered Species Act, ranchers can’t fire rubber-coated buckshot, rubber-coated bullets or beanbags at wolves; they also can’t chase them off with ATVs or noisemakers.

That means in the north, Canis lupus baileyi, the rarest subspecies in North America, is at increased risk of being killed, McGee explains.

“The less that ranchers can do to protect their livestock, the more intolerance there is for predators like wolves,” he says. “South of I-40, where there are less protections for the wolf but more flexibility for ranchers and others to harass that wolf, there is more tolerance because there’s more they can do to protect their livestock.”

But the boundary isn’t just about cows. In a legal complaint the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed Oct. 11 against the US government, plaintiffs write of the I-40 dividing line: “FWS has maintained this geographical limitation largely at the behest of state game officials who wish to avoid wolf predation on local elk and deer populations that generate hunting-related activity providing revenue to state coffers.” That arbitrary line of demarcation, they assert, has prevented Mexican wolves from establishing new packs in the Grand Canyon and the southern Rockies.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is legally obligated to remove a wolf from north of I-40...which precludes the creation of a metapopulation in the southern Rockies, where they could thrive and where a study has shown [Mexican wolves] would need [another] population in order to recover,” says Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “No other endangered species is required to stay within a boundary.”

The wild-born Mexican wolf biologists refer to as F2754 was on the move for more than a month. In early January, radio collar signals showed the nearly 2-year-old female had crossed out of the area south of Interstate 40 that the US Fish and Wildlife Service considers its “recovery area.” When she started hanging around on private land near Angel Fire, biologists trapped her and moved her into captivity. 1) December 2022: Left the Rocky Prairie Pack in southeastern Arizona, then bypassed packs in the Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico 2) Mid-December: Reached Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge on the east side of I-25 3) Early January: Crossed I-40 heading north near Moriarty and then back south of the roadway and east toward Santa Rosa 4) Jan. 9: Crossed I-40 again and headed north toward Las Vegas 5) Jan. 18: Reported due east of Angel Fire 6) Jan. 22: Captured on private land (SOURCE: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

I first heard about the female wolf on Jan. 9 when the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish issued a news release about her travels—a release in which she’s repeatedly referred to as an “it,” by the way. I thought of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. I’d re-read the book, a favorite, over the holiday. And I’ve loved these lines since first reading them almost 20 years ago:

“He stood down in the snow and dropped the reins and squatted and thumbed back the brim of his hat. In the floors of the little wells she’d stoven in the snow lay her perfect prints. The broad forefoot. The narrow hind. The sometime dragmark of her dugs or the place where she’d put her nose. He closed his eyes and tried to see her. Her and others of her kind, wolves and ghosts of wolves running in the whiteness of that high world as perfect to their use as if their counsel had been sought in the devising of it. He rose and walked back to where the horse stood waiting. He looked out across the mountain the way she’d come and then mounted and rode on.”

Hours after reading that Game and Fish release, I lay in bed watching the city-lit clouds above the bare branches of my neighborhood trees, wondering where she might be at that moment. What did she smell, see? What forms did she watch on the landscape? What did she consider as she bedded down for the night, so far beyond the scent of other wolves?

When I talked to McGee two days later, he said wolves will travel at night.

“They’ll keep walking, and keep going,” he said. “Whenever they want to rest, they’ll rest anywhere, under a rock or a bush or a tree. But a lot of times, they just keep going.”

I also asked him what signs she might follow—scents? stars? arroyos?—as she looks for a mate, especially since there aren’t any wolves for hundreds of miles. “Nobody knows the answer to that,” he replied. “Wolves will do this, whether Mexican or northern gray wolves. When they want to disperse, they just get up and go. It could be any direction, at any time.”

In the history of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program, McGee said, no wolf has traveled into Northern New Mexico.

Many New Mexicans already know the story of wolf reintroductions and recovery in the United States.

Wolves were trapped, poisoned and hunted to extinction here in the early to mid-20th century. In the 1970s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed them for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act and, in the 1990s, in partnership with states and tribes, the federal government started releasing captive-bred wolves, including Mexican wolves into Arizona and New Mexico and northern gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department helped monitor endangered Mexican wolf pups born to the Rocky Prairie Pack. (Arizona Game and Fish)

In the Southwest, the recovery program has been fraught, in the kindest of terms. Political winds on the federal and state levels have stymied efforts in stumbling, alternating four- and eight-year increments. Many say the government’s submission to a small number of ranchers has denied wolves the opportunity to thrive; wolves who prey on cattle can be killed or removed from the wild. And there’s the problem of genetics: All of the captive and wild Mexican wolves in the United States today are descendants of just seven animals, including two kept caged in a roadside zoo in Abiquiu in the 1980s.

After years of planning, breeding and political battles, the recovery team first released Mexican wolves from pens into the Apache National Forest in Arizona on March 29, 1998. More than a decade ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s former wolf coordinator, Dave Parsons, recalled the experience to me: “I can remember heading out that next morning and finding wolf tracks in the snow outside the pen for the first time in oh, probably 50 years in that country. And then we got out our radio tracking gear and set about to see just where they’d gone.”

For a quarter-century, biologists have tracked the wolves’ movements. That’s why McGee could tell me so much about the female wolf identified as f2754. (Some people call her Asha after seventh grade student Maesen Whiteside named her in a contest.)

McGee says f2754′s dispersal was a sign of the program’s success, evidence that the population is growing and expanding. The agency is about to perform its annual count, so the numbers are a little out of date. But McGee says there are about 350 in captivity, about 200 in the wild in the United States, and 40 in Mexico. All are descended from the original seven.

“It’s fascinating to watch them move into new areas, but at the same time, we’re concerned about her well-being: Moving into new areas means increased risk of dying,” he said in early January.

Road crossings are dangerous, obviously. And this time of year, as ranchers on private lands kill coyotes, f2754 is vulnerable to traps. Or she could have been shot, mistaken for a coyote.

When she moved into Northern New Mexico, the recovery program notified local ranchers and continued monitoring her. McGee said in early January: “Right now, she has not been involved in any livestock depredations or situations or shown up...Right now, this time of year is breeding season, so there are concerns she’d show up at a ranch’s headquarters and interact with ranch dogs.”

If she were to prey on cattle or interact with people, McGee said, the government “will take more aggressive or immediate actions.” But even if she stayed safe or out of trouble, even if she just kept seeking a mate, howling to signal another wolf anywhere nearby, she wasn’t going to be allowed to roam.

“We’re working with Game and Fish, and probably won’t let her stay up in this area,” he said, referring to Northern New Mexico specifically, but outside the experimental population area as a whole. “She’s not contributing to recovery, so the management options are to move her back to the core area or put her in captivity or translocate her to Mexico.”

According to McGee, the recovery team isn’t ready for Mexican wolves to interbreed with northern gray wolves, because they’re trying to protect the genetics of Mexican wolves.

But Robinson doesn’t buy that. He says the program has “largely destroyed” the genetic diversity of Mexican wolves. From the founding seven animals, their genetic equivalent has dropped down to two founding animals. That’s due in part, he says, to low release rates of captive-bred wolves into the wild and to the widespread killing and removal of wild wolves who preyed on livestock.

If the US government had done a better job with reintroductions across the West, Robinson said in early January that the female wolf would have had choices while trying to chart a new territory. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if [the] Fish and Wildlife Service a decade ago had heeded scientific suggestions and introduced them to the southern Rockies? They didn’t do so, and if Asha makes it to that ideal habitat, there will be no other Mexican wolves. And if she goes to the northwest reaches of Colorado, she wouldn’t find any wolves at all.”

In 2020, Colorado voters passed Proposition 114, a ballot initiative directing the Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to reintroduce and manage wolves in the western part of the state by the end of 2023.

Speaking when the wolf was still roaming, Robinson believed if f2754 had been given time, she could have found a northern gray wolf to breed with—and her potential pups “could have tremendously valuable genetics that at some point in the future could be imparted to Mexican wolves further south.”

All that said, Robinson, too, has mixed feelings: “She’s potentially going to get to great habitat, but what is there for her?…A lot of roads, a lot of people with guns.”

She didn’t get shot. Or hit by a car. But she’s no longer in Northern New Mexico.

A captive Mexican wolf stands in the snow at Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility. Wolf f2754 faced similar conditions this winter. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

There’s no doubt that wolves, and wolf reintroduction efforts, elicit strong feelings in people. Love and hate. Affection and fear. But can we all just share awe for a moment?

Imagine her journey across the Southwest—and across landscapes entirely different from her natal lands. Imagine seeing semi-trucks for the first time, feeling their rumbles and squeals in your haunches and still deciding to dart across the highway. Repeatedly. Even from the Manzanos, the pulse of Albuquerque is palpable. Did she growl or whimper as she watched truck lights flash or the city flicker in the distance? Would she only howl when absolutely sure another wolf might hear?

Now raise your hand if you’ve ever felt restless or found yourself dwelling in unsuitable territory, physically or mentally. Raise your hand if you follow signs, seeking something that might not be out there, or if you yearn for something that’s so far away you only know it exists because restless cells beneath bone and skin spur you on. Raise your hand if best laid plans and real life contradict themselves.

Raise your hand if you keep going.

In The Crossing, McCarthy’s wolf meets a terrible end. It’s terrible for the end itself and terrible for how her confusion and suffering are prolonged by the cruelties of men—and by a knuckleheaded kid who sets traps with his dad and then, when he catches the wolf, releases her, only to lead her by horse south into Mexico. He thought he’d free her there and she’d live beyond that arbitrarily drawn border.

“He squatted over the wolf and touched her fur,” McCarthy wrote. “He touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the mountains, running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun’s coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her. Deer and hare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the possible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from. Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel.”

But of course, real life is complicated. And even more complex than one of McCarthy’s novels, if you can believe that.

On Jan. 18, the young female wolf from Arizona was due east of Angel Fire. Storms had dumped snow onto the mountains. Temperatures during the day hardly rose above 30 degrees; in darkness, they fell to the single digits. And when the clouds did part at night, a waning crescent moon didn’t rise until close to dawn.

Four days later, on Sunday, Jan. 22, state Game and Fish located f2754 via helicopter. She had lingered too long on private lands near Angel Fire. The landowner wanted her gone. And, anyway, her time was up: McGee says the agency monitors wolves that cross I-40 and gives them 14 days to travel back south on their own.

Speaking on the morning after her capture, McGee says she’s now in a pen on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Her genetics are poor, he says: “She’s pretty inbred.” So the program will look for an acceptable captive mate for her, “one that would give her the best genetics, and the best contribution in the wild.”

Then, in April, she’ll be released back into the wild. Maybe in Arizona. Maybe in New Mexico. But probably in Mexico.

After weeks of witnessing a rare, wild creature seek something so far beyond her reach, we should marvel to live in a world with wolves. And fear the empty banality of one without them. But beyond that, it’s time to peer into the gap between wild and managed, between the world we imagine and the one we’ve created—and decide where we want to go.

This story was produced in cooperation with New Mexico PBS.

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