Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mexican wolves waiting for freedom in Minnesota

Zoo's wolves are Southwestern visitors
Animals are part of recovery effort


Minnesota Zoo keeper Jackie Fallon has spent much of her career working desperately to save the "ghosts of the Southwest," the rarest and most endangered wolves in North America.

Mexican gray wolves were wiped out in the United States by the middle of the 20th century, but the subspecies found a sliver of hope in the late 1970s after a trapper working for the government captured five wolves alive in Mexico.

For more than a decade, Fallon has been part of a two-nation effort to breed those captive wolves and return their descendants to the wild, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked the Apple Valley zoo in 1994 to help.

One of the zoo's former wolves is now at a holding facility awaiting release into the Blue Mountain Range in Arizona.

"That's what I've always strived for, every day, for all of these years," Fallon said.

In the meantime, Fallon cares for four male Mexican wolves, the smallest and most genetically distinct type of gray wolf. The zoo keeps the Mexican wolves instead of the state's native — and thriving — Great Plains gray wolves, because it hopes to help save the endangered animals.

Unlike many other animals at the zoo, the wolves on exhibit are not trained or socialized in any way.

"These wolves are completely terrified of us. They need to be," Fallon said. "If they have even a chance at survival in the wild they need to be afraid of humans."

The zoo has routinely bred wolves, and has had as many as 11 on exhibit, but shipped them to other zoos at the direction of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the wolves.

Since 1998, the federal government has released 90 Mexican gray wolves into the wild, but only about 35 are confirmed alive now, Fallon said. The captive population has ballooned to more than 300 wolves.

The wild population may be at a standstill, however.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a moratorium on releasing any more wolf pairs if six breeding pairs were found in the recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico. Government officials are evaluating the program's viability and talking with local ranchers who oppose the reintroduction near their livestock.

But the latest count shows just five known wolf pairs, so Fallon is waiting to hear if "her" wolf will be set free this year.

"I'm just crossing my fingers," she said.

  • St. Paul Pioneer Press