Monday, July 31, 2006

Wolf family finds freedom in Arizona after time at South Salem center


LEWISBORO — It didn't take long for a South Salem wolf and her family to chew their way to freedom in the Arizona wilderness this month. The 3-year-old female, a Mexican gray wolf once held at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, is among the latest canids to be released in the Southwest to reintroduce the endangered species back to its traditional range.

The female, her mate and their two 11-week-old pups were taken to a mesh tent in the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona. Several hours later, the family had torn its way out of the enclosure, said Barry Braden, managing director of the Wolf Conservation Center.

"It's total validation of our mission," Braden said this week of the July 6 release. "It restores the balance of the ecosystem that was missing when wolves were removed."

The wolves once roamed Mexico, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, but as human settlement of the Southwest intensified, the wolf was killed off, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said. In the late 1970s, the last known five Mexican wolves in the world were captured to start a breeding program, Braden said.

Today there are about 350 Mexican wolves, with about 25 to 50 of them living in the wild, Braden said. They face the challenge of learning how to hunt, Braden said. Another challenge is establishing territory, said Victoria Fox, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Southwest region. The reintroduction began in 1998.

"We have very successful pairs (of wolves)," said Fox, whose agency is spearheading the reintroduction effort. "Then you have some that are not so successful."

Not everyone is pleased with putting the wolves back on the range. Ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico have complained that the predators threaten their livestock, although environmentalists say there are a relatively small number of ranchers opposing the program.

The South Salem conservation center has 11 Mexican gray wolves. The center is also trying to help the endangered red wolf survive, and on Aug. 3 and 4 the center is hosting the annual meeting of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan.

The Wolf Conservation Center received the female Mexican wolf, known as "F838," from the Minnesota Zoo when she was about a year old. She was paired with a male from the Wild Canid Research and Survival Center in Eureka, Mo., and together they had the two pups.

"We know they (the female and male) have very strong parenting skills," said Kim Scott, the Missouri center's assistant director. "They seem to be very well bonded."

The two adults have radio collars so they can be tracked. A motion-sensing trail camera recently captured a photo of the female and one of her cubs at a feeding area. Braden noted that the pup has grown considerably since the release.

"I'd say they're doing pretty well," Braden said.

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