Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Stone Zoo helps reintroduce wolves into the wild

Stone Zoo helps reintroduce wolves into the wild
By John Linehan

Southwestern mountains have not heard the howl of the Mexican gray wolf for more than 30 years. Now, in a unique partnership between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish, New Mexico Game and Fish, many Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited zoos, and a number of other partners, Zoo New England is participating in a reintroduction program to release captive-reared Mexican gray wolves. Forests and fields, including some Native American tribal lands, in remote parts of Arizona and New Mexico are once again alive with the sounds of wolves.

The Mexican gray wolf weighs 50 to 80 pounds and measures about 5 1/2 feet in length, with a buff, gray, and rust coat. With a complex social behavior - living in packs (family groups) and communicating through vocalizations, body posturing and scent marking - these animals have a tightly organized group structure that enables them to work together and to adapt to most environments as long as there is prey.

Their important role in the ecosystem is not filled by other predators; in fact there have been localized overabundances of elk in some areas leading to environmental degradation. Black bears and cougars roam these areas, but they don't fill the wolf's niche. Elk comprise the bulk of the wolves' diet and keeping a balance is crucial to the environment's health.

This month the 2006 Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) Annual Meeting took place in Alpine, AZ. This region is the heart of the wolf release area. Beyond the usual work associated with management of the captive population, the management committee was able to experience first hand the complexities managing the wild population. Some area residents, particularly ranchers, have great concerns about this program for the reintroduction of predators. The committee also got to experience the challenges facing the state and federal biologists charged with carrying out this program, including the challenges of finding radio-collared wolves in this often steep terrain.

Once common throughout western Texas, southern New Mexico, central Arizona and Northern Mexico, the population of the Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of the North American grey wolves, was exterminated before scientists were able to compile a complete study of their natural history. Today, with approximately 300 Mexican gray wolves in existence - most born in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in the United States and Mexico, but more being born in the wild each year - international wolf experts rate the recovery of these animals with the highest priority.

In 1976, the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), requiring the implementation of plans for conservation and survival of the species. The Mexican Wolf Recovery Team was formed and a plan was established in 1979. Zoo New England began participating in the Mexican Wolf SSP in 1998. The SSP is a consortium of institutions working together to breed captive Mexican gray wolves for continuing reintroduction and recovery in the southwestern US. Last year our breeding pair of wolves at Stone Zoo produced eight pups - all of which are thriving. The SSP has now reached its captive population goals and soon we will be translocating some members of our pack to other zoos and conservation partners.

Using the experience gained from other wolf recovery programs, scientists are very optimistic about Mexican gray wolf recovery. The captive-raised wolves have learned to survive in the wild and to successfully form groups, reproduce, and raise their pups. They are also forming new pairs on their own, indicating a healthy wolf population. We are fortunate to once again be able to hear the howl of wild wolves in our American southwest. This would not have been possible without the collaborative and collective efforts of our zoos.

John Linehan is president and CEO of Zoo New England

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