Friday, July 21, 2006

Minnesota Zoo releases wolf into the wild

by Jeff Achen - Thisweek Newspapers

It was a unique opportunity for the Minnesota Zoo and its primary wolf zookeeper, Jackie Fallon, to take part in the reintroduction of an endangered species. It was also a difficult goodbye.

Last year, Fallon sent one of the Mexican gray wolves she cares for to a temporary holding facility in New York. In November, “Alita,” a 3-year-old female, arrived in New Mexico where she bred with another wolf. On July 6, wildlife biologists placed Alita, her mate, and both of their 3-month-old pups near Middle Mountain in the Apache National Forest.

Fallon said the zoo’s participation in the release is something zoos don’t often get to be a part of. As the focus of modern zoos becomes more and more about participation in conservation and recovery of animals in the wild, reintroduction is one goal zookeepers get excited about. “That’s a goal that zoos often don’t get to accomplish,” Fallon said.

Fallon admits that it’s human nature to get attached to the animals she cares for, and that it wasn’t easy to say goodbye to Alita, but it’s more important to her to see the animals released into the wild.

The first captive Mexican gray wolves were released in 1998, but Fallon said those first 11 wolves were more genetically common. The release of Alita is unique because she has all three lineages of the Mexican gray wolf in her blood, making her extremely genetically valuable. “It’s really important to bring in new bloodlines to the wild and the only way to do that is to bring in captive wolves,” Fallon said. “She’s not closely related to any of the wolves in the wild.”

There are only about 300 or so Mexican gray wolves in captivity and 30 to 50 in the wild.

The reintroduction is a cooperative effort of the Arizona and New Mexico Game and Fish departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the USDA Forest and USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services.

The Minnesota Zoo first became involved in the Mexican gray wolf species survival program in 1994 with two females and one male. In 2003, the zoo received an award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for its involvement with the program after the birth of seven pups that year. Alita still has four full brothers at the Minnesota Zoo and Fallon said she’s proud of the care they are able to provide these endangered and genetically valuable creatures.

The exhibit allows them to roam a bit more freely than traditional zoo habitats, including hunting small game. This will prepare them for release into the wild if there comes another call for their valuable genetics.

As hard as it may be to say more goodbyes, Fallon will be glad to see them restored to their natural habitat.

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