The Mexican Wolf
Aldo Leopold describes watching a Mexican wolf die: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”
“I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
We were headed to New Mexico to go tracking, visit some hot springs and enjoy some sunshine after several winter months in northern Wisconsin. While the animal tracking in snow is often rockin’, we were hoping to get into some desert country and track creatures in the dirt for a while. Some new scenery with a nice little vacation was definitely in order so we started preparing.
We’d fly down to Tucson, rent a car, and head for the desert mountains of south eastern Az. and south western NM.
While we’ve been steeped in rich animal tracking, regularly following bobcat, red fox, coyote, fisher and wolf, the chance to head for Apache country was something my compadres and I were excited to do. The Apache people are said to be some of the best trackers in history and it makes rational sense as all native people who lived in desert country developed rich tracking skills and cultures, the Apache being one of the richest.
Not long before we headed out, Tamarack Song pulled me aside and said “hey, you’re going to the Gila. That’s Mexican Wolf country. Get me a picture of a Mexican Wolf track for my files, would you?”
I hadn’t thought of this. I was thinking, desert animals, like javelina and hog nosed skunk. Perhaps coati. For me, seeing the tracks of these animals would be quite exotic and the chance to follow them around heavenly. Wolf wasn’t in my radar at the least. Let alone the Mexican variety.
I shrugged off Tamaracks suggestion with a comment like “sure, I’ll keep my eyes open for you” but didn’t figure I’d have the opportunity to follow through. You see, Mexican Grey Wolves are extremely rare. With maybe 140 left in the wild, they’re on the brink of extinction.
When he mentioned Mexican Wolves to me, I had just about zero knowledge of them except a faint notion that they were in the southwest. I actually thought he was talking about the Red Wolf, of which I had heard were nothing more than a wolf/coyote hybrid. I guess in the back of my uneducated mind, I thought they were one and the same.
Of course, I was going to keep my eyes open for them. I’m deeply passionate about wildlife and nature, and one of the best ways to know directly about animals’ lives is through the doorway of tracking. This is one of the skills I’ve developed over the years that I learned largely by default. In fact, it’s in some ways an innate skill. In the simplest form, tracking is pattern recognition, something our minds are built for. I suppose honing of the skill amounts to looking at the ground a lot and becoming familiar with what you see. Really, it’s that simple.
When I go into a new area, I look at everything, and I usually immediately start to recognize patterns. A squirrel trail in the snow of Wisconsin will look an awful lot like a squirrel trail in New Mexico. And it goes deeper than this. When I say I look, I feel and smell and listen to the landscape and the stories begin to talk. Perhaps I’ll notice the feeding sign of a vole on the base of a tree, alerting me to their presence. Maybe I’ll notice where a deer rubbed its antlers on a willow, or the rooting sign of a wild hog. I may recognize the nest of a robin or the sign of a sapsucker.
In this way, I’ll become acquainted with the land and its animals, and a comforting feeling will slowly settle into me. I’ll feel home very quickly and this enriches my experience.
It’s the same for the plants and trees. As I walk among them, I recognize. Even if I’ve never been to an area, much of what I encounter will be familiar. Perhaps I’m in a part of the world that’s completely foreign. Still the patterns emerge. I may not know a species of plant, but often I will recognize the cousin of a plant I know. Its family. In this way, I might know instantly that I can eat the berry from it as all Currant family fruits are edible, for instance. I may recognize an oak tree and instinctively know that it’s a major food provider to the denizens of the area. I can poke around and see who is feeding on the acorns, recognizing feeding sign of particular animals or birds on the nuts themselves. Every animal that feeds on an acorn, does so in a bit of a different way, and by recognizing these different feeding sign, or detritus laying around, I can start to know who is dependent on the trees around me.
This familiarity that provides me with such connection, is just that. Familiarity. It comes from being outside and paying attention and learning and recognizing patterns. It’s really quite simple and its the way we are built. Its our natural way. Looking at tracks and reading the stories from the landscape is what we’re designed to do and have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s one of my joys for sure.
I love to travel to new areas and get out in nature to immerse myself. I love to interact with wildlife and watch them in their worlds. I love to find tracking mysteries and work out a plausible story for what I’m seeing. Kill sites fascinate me and discovering and investigating one gives me great joy. The life and death story playing itself out under our noses is as wild and dramatic as anything happening on the African savannahs, and tracking is one of the best ways to see this unfolding. It’s recognizable symbols and patterns that can convey incredibly detailed information to us, allowing us to use our frontal lobes to weave intricate ever evolving stories of the mysterious and cryptic lives of the animals around us.
For these reasons and more, Abel, Sue and I were headed to the desert southwest. Combining a leisure trip to the natural hot springs with the opportunity to track wildlife was a win-win in my opinion. Top that with the seeing of dear friends while down there, and it was a no-brainer.
For the sake of following through with my word to Tamarack, as well as to learn myself, while enroute and in airports I started checking around the internet for information on the Mexican Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). I figured I’d at least prepare myself for the disappointment of not finding their tracks. The first website I looked at made me change my opinion. Apparently, The Mexican Grey Wolf (MGW) reintroduction area and the last stronghold of a species barely hanging on was right in the area we were headed. Interesting…. The article I was reading went on to say that there were around 140 wolves left in the southwest. Not very many by any stretch and the area designated for their ‘refuge’ was large. Really large.
I was also struck by reading that these wolves were not coyote/wolf hybrids. They were grey wolves through and through. I had had no idea. My interest was growing.
After two days of travel, we arrived in Silver City and we immediately went to the National Forest headquarters there to talk with the resident biologists and see what information we could gather before heading into the wilderness. As is normal in my travels when looking for information, the kind folks at the front desk could tell us nothing about wolves. In fact, they seemed barely aware that there was a reintroduction program going on right under their noses.
Carl and Rick did share their love of the desert and mountains as well as phone numbers for the biologists that they thought could help, so with these numbers and a stack of free maps resplendent with Ricks notes and scribbles, we headed into the Gila.
The biologists didn’t get back to me which was no surprise. I haven’t found many federal biologists who’ve been very helpful. I’m sure they have a lot on their plates and a random phone call from a stranger asking them about something they maybe don’t know much about might seem like a waste of their time.
So, into the Gila we went.
The Gila National Forest is one of the gems of our country. It’s a magical place made so special partly because thankfully, gold was never found there. This is relevant to someone who loves the wide-open spaces like myself, because the lack of mining means no roads. There are hardly any houses, towns or roads in the 3.3-million-acre Gila making it one of the darkest places in the country at night. In fact, there’s a National Forest campground in the Gila on the registrar of the International Dark Sky Association. The IDSA encourages and keeps track of areas of the country/world where light pollution is at a minimum. Great places to stargaze, and many gazers of the night sky make these designated location visits on their lists of places to see stars.
It turns out that light pollution negatively affects wildlife. Not surprising and I’m thankful that there are places like the Gila to offer refuge for at least some of our wildlife.
The Gila’s depth and breadth instantly impresses upon the visitor what the west once was like. You right away get the feel that there’s nothing civilized or man made anywhere nearby and I felt an expansive, wild stirring inside re-kindling my childhood fantasies of Cochise, Geronimo, Victorio and the un-tameness of Apacheria. It truly feels like in every direction, the wilderness goes on endlessly.
The other thing that kept the Gila from the early expansion of western civilization was the Apache.
Considered by many scholars to be the greatest guerilla warfighters of all time, the Apache were no stranger to warfare when the whites arrived. Fighting Mexicans for more than 150 years honed their warrior skillsets and upon arrival, the whites found a formidable foe.
The Apache kept the mountains of the southwest fairly empty of expansionism for a long long time, and every time people would try to settle, the wily Apache would find new and ingenious ways of routing them. This kept the miners at bay for a long time. Eventually though, the Apaches were subjugated. Not by the wiles of the white settlers, but by the ‘tamed’ Apaches, and finally prospectors could comb the mountainous regions of the southwest finding nothing of value in the Gila worth building the roads and towns that came with every gold rush.
The Gila was traditionally the territory of the Chihene Apache, one of the several bands that were lumped under the name Chiricahau as time went on.
Regardless, this land is wide open and largely empty today. A perfect stronghold and core territory for a native species that was almost extirpated.
The Mexican Grey Wolf, also known as el lobo, was the first wolf in the Americas. DNA evidence points to el lobo being the first wolf across Beringia. Following Caribou, Musk Ox, Mastodon and others, between 70,000 and 23,000 years ago, those first wolves came into North America and spread widely, colonizing the whole of the North American continent.
Originally, the larger Beringian Wolf inhabited the Beringian land bridge and what is now Alaska and the Yukon probably keeping out the smaller Wolves that came later. At some point in the Late Pleistocene for an unknown reason, the Beringian Wolf went extinct. This apparently opened up the way for the smaller possibly more adaptable Wolves that we’re familiar with.
The first one to make the journey Was the Mexican. This adaptable small wolf wasted no time in spreading across the continent and had a good foothold here until the (now extinct) Great Planes Wolf moved into the country and pushed the Mexican Wolves southward. The GPW was larger, with bigger and stouter skulls and was adapted to life on the plains. Also called the Buffalo Wolf, it was said by Native Americans that any 3 of the GPW could kill any sized Bison with no help. These and other Wolves (including the lobo) from the Late Pleistocene had shorter legs than the current Grey Wolves and one
theory as to why that was is that there were other slower prey animals in those times and the wolves who lived off these early herds of Pleistocene megafauna didn’t need the longer legs and greater speed of the Grey Wolf of the Holocene. Whatever the reasons, they and other long extinct Holocene Wolves pushed el lobo south where they stayed, before going extinct themselves. By this time, European humans were here and bound and determined to finish the job of Wolf extinction until thankfully, some environmentally minded folks came up with the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
In 1976, el lobo was listed and an aggressive plan was written and implemented. Between 1977-1980, the last remaining wild Mexican Grey Wolves were captured in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico and put into a captive breeding program.
There are now around 400 living Mexican Grey’s spread out over more than 45 zoos and recovery/breeding facilities in the U.S. and Mexico, including 163 living wild. So, I can say that (so far), the recovery efforts have been successful and the numbers are climbing. In fact, in the last 2 years, the wild and free-living wolves have increased their numbers by 30! That’s positive news if you’re a Wolf lover.
Not if you’re a rancher.
At least that’s the sentiment I’ve been hearing. It seems that el lobo like easy to kill prey and their territories are surrounded by and inundated with cows, sheep, and goats, making wolf/human conflict more the norm than the exception. I talked to one rancher in the area of the Gila and I was told “we don’t need no wolves around here, we have animals”. She was referring to the chickens and goats her and her husband had on their hobby farm. I was surprised. When I asked them about el lobo, I was half expecting an open accepting attitude. I guess I naively thought that since the wolf was still teetering on extinction, and this was the last place on earth where they could potentially retain a tiny population, that people would be progressively informed, educated, and aware of the situation.
What I found surprised me. Instead of a people concerned with the wellbeing of the wildlife of their area, they were worried about their milk goats and their ‘rancher’ way of life.
This is the common antiquated rancher mindset anywhere that you go in this country that’s rural. The old ‘us against them’ mindset of euro-western-civilization. If it threatens our livelihood, kill it. If it eats our goat, kill it. Eats a chicken, kill it.
This is a fairly out of date way of thinking and if we want to become Britain, with no wolves and little wild lands supporting wildlife, we just need to keep up the status quo. In Britain the most likely animal for a human to be killed by is the cow, and this may be where America is headed in the long run.
Me, I like to see wildlife. I love to get out and interact. Go tracking. Hunting. Photographing.
I like that there’s still places in the world where I need to pay attention because there are dangerous wild animals. I like that there are places where your calf might get killed and eaten by wolves. But these places are slowly going away, and the Mexican Wolf is a potential canary in the coal mine. It’s a species that’s got limited land to spread to, and its numbers are low. Could a disease like Parvo go through and kill them all off in a single fell swoop? (I’ve since learned that all the captive and wild bred wolves caught are immunized for rabies, parvo and distemper. The same shots domestics get).
There are creative ways of protecting livestock in wolf country. Not everything works. Some of these experimental methods are costly and not every rancher wants the extra headache of trying them. The old tried and true methods of extermination are ingrained and easy. It also gives ranchers a challenge. An enemy. Something to pit themselves against in the ever-going battle that they still see as settling the west. I half think that ranchers would be bored if they didn’t have predators to go after.
One creative method that I recently heard of in wolf country is what are called “range riders”. These are not your typical cowboys. Well maybe they are, but they don’t have the same jobs cowboys used to. These guys and gals ride and camp with the herds and keep a human presence on the landscape keeping wolves from getting after the cows. Or, if a wolf pack kills a cow, these range riders chase them off and do their best to haze them non-lethally, hoping to ‘train’ the wolves to leave livestock alone.
The challenge here is that a cowboy is going to charge a hefty fee to be out on the range all the time camping and living that lifestyle. Also, it takes a particular person to spend lots of time alone and ranchers don’t want to be paying a crew of these range riders as that would get awfully expensive fast.
El lobo is the smallest wolf. With the average weight being between 50-80 lbs., it stands from 24-32 inches tall. This is smaller than the Grey Wolf, who runs around 75-110 lbs. and stands up to several inches taller than their southern counterparts.
Given their smaller size, they can easily be mistaken for coyotes and for this reason, are sometimes ‘mistakenly’ shot. Adding to the confusion, the coloring of el lobo is more resembling a coyote. They sometimes have a reddish tint and the hair across their shoulders and back is often darker than the rest of their bodies making some of them at least, very similar looking to a coyote.
See, it’s completely legal to shoot any coyote you see and its common practice in rural America. The rationale is usually “well, I’m protecting wildlife (or stock) (or children)”. This gives ranchers an easy excuse to shoot a wolf and call it a coyote. Never mind that coyotes are small prey specialists and sustain themselves mostly on mice, rats, and voles. Sure, they eat a baby deer from time to time and I suppose that’s reason enough to kill one. At least in some forms of thinking. Also never mind that coyotes are wildlife themselves.
I was watching some promotional videos from the organization calling themselves “Stop the Wolf”. It espouses a wolf free landscape and portrays wolves as indiscriminate killers viciously making their way from ranch-to-ranch slaying cattle wantonly.
Now, there are ranchers that are negatively affected. One woman interviewed had lost some 19 cows and 1 horse to wolf kills in about a year. That’s a huge effect. She went on to say that they’re waiting for federal money to replace the livestock. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000. The horse that they lost was a family pet, even a member of their family (as she put it), it was that loved. So, suffice it to say, a huge loss to her and her children. Both emotional and financial.
From this and other information, I’ve discovered that there’s a federal program to pay ranchers for their losses in wolf re-introduction areas. The problems are numerous in this system though. For one, it has to be proven that a wolf made the kill. This involves having a county inspector come look for a determination. At this point, it can’t be called a wolf kill until a now federal inspector comes back with the county person and the two-person team determines (and agrees) that it’s a wolf kill. For another, once this determination is made, my understanding is that still, many don’t get their checks. Or it comes three years later. A ridiculously top-heavy bureaucratic system that does more to piss off ranchers than to appease them.
Much easier to just shoot wolves, which is also legal to do if you can prove (after the fact) that you caught said wolf in the act of hurting or killing your livestock.
The ‘accidental’ “I thought it was a coyote” is the easiest method currently to get rid of a wolf/stock problem.
Another method I’ve heard talked about is the old tried and true shoot, shovel, and shut-up method. Basically, to kill a wolf, bury it, and don’t tell anyone about it and this is probably the most common.
Once a depredation on a ranch happens and ranchers get sent through the federal ringer, they quickly learn that to deal with the government is a circus that no one wants any part of, and they often times then take the issue into their own hands. And I don’t blame them. Anyone who’s dealt with the DMV or the IRS has gotten a glimpse into the frustrating world of the federal government. And the wolf depredation pay-out program might be one of the worst.
When the Mexican Wolf was first reintroduced in 1996, every wild wolf was a captive bred and raised wolf. This got the program off to a rocky start at best, as these wolves were habituated to humans and had no fear of them. The lobos even had an unnatural curiosity towards them which caused lots of wolf/human/livestock conflicts making the program appear like a bad idea from the get go.
Slowly in time, this has changed some. Now all the wild Mexican Wolves are wild born and this certainly slowed down the rate of depredation. Now wolves are implicated less and less as their natural fear of being near humans keeps them farther from ranches and trouble.
This isn’t to say that the problem is solved, but it has, and continues to abate.
People on both sides of the issue tend to get passionate about the debate and that further muddies the waters of the introduction and protection of these native animals.
One argument for changing how we as a culture deal with depredations is this:
“If you had a cat, and it went out into the road and got ran over by a truck, you wouldn’t go out, track down that truck driver, and kill him.” No, you’d get another cat and figure out some creative way to try to keep the cat out of the road.
But the above scenario is exactly the way we treat depredation in this country. If a wolf or mountain lion kills your goat, its chased down and killed. Or at least an attempt is made to do so.
This antiquated system doesn’t work unless you remove all the potential predators from the world. And that’s exactly what many people want. Wolves removed from the land, so this is where the issue becomes a bit philosophical. We need to ask ourselves, “do we want predators in our world?”
Many people would answer the above question with a yes, and many with a no and both sides of the issue are passionate making this a very polarizing topic.
Our first day really hiking in the wilds of the Gila, we left our camp early and planned to be gone most of the day. We were going to pick a ridge heading up, to try to make our way to a far, high ridge we could see from camp. We at this point were looking to find some mountain lion tracks and sign and the far ridge looked to me like a potential travel route for a resident male lion. Off we went and after a couple of hours of climbing through the sparse pinion, juniper and ponderosa forests we realized that we’d have to drop into a high valley to cross onto the ridge we wanted to get to. We had come way up a feeder ridge but couldn’t continue as it got too steep and rocky for us to pass.
We dropped off into the canyon down a steep fluffy red dirt hillside into the deep canyon bottom finding a nice flat-bottomed gutter and decided straight down was the best way to proceed until we could find a way out and up the other side.
Within a quarter mile we found a spot where a low ridge came into the canyon on the far side that created a natural funnel for wildlife passing from one ridge to the other and here, we found our first mountain lion sign. It wasn’t fresh, but it was clearly a lion scrape and was in the logical spot as here was the deer tracks and trails. This lion was scent marking on his (probably) regular route through his territory traveling where the deer travel. This is a common behavior and once you figure out where to look or, where lions travel, it’s not that hard to find their sign.
Here the canyon sort of dished out, subtly flattening and creating a much more traversable landscape and, the wildlife movement reflected this. We noticed right away hare and deer tracks, movement trails and feeding sign. We split up and I went down the left side of the gutter and Abel and Sue were flanking me on the right-side scanning for tracks and sign. I got a bit out in front of them and the canyon started to bottle-neck so I dropped into the ditch and planned on meeting them on the other side so we could begin our ascent the rest of the way up to the far ridge. Which was getting much closer by now as we had come 3 miles or so.
As soon as I hit the ditch, I noticed in the soft sand of the wash a track that at first, I thought was a lion track. It was about the right size and close enough in shape to catch my eye.
Often when I see a track that is old and/or doesn’t have the detail necessary for a positive ID, I’ll immediately start walking and looking for others. And, as Abel and Sue were still up-ditch from me, I just started walking toward them knowing there would probably be more of these tracks, hopefully giving me more info towards a positive identification.
When I heard Sue give a holler, I knew they had found some good tracks and assumed it was the (assumed) lion I had seen the track of before, so I hustled in their direction. I walked up-ditch to them and looked down and immediately saw a wolf track! This was a big surprise to me.
Now, I’ve been looking at animal tracks my whole life. And, I’ve been studying them with a fervor for a couple decades, and one of the things that has taught me a bunch, is canine tracks. My tracking buddies and I are ever arguing dog vs. wolf vs. coyote vs. fox. Wild vs. domestic, and on and on. This has and does constantly keep me on my edge of looking deep and finding the subtle differences between the species, ever honing my skill and fine tuning my ‘at a glance’ tracking.
Right away this track looked to me like a wolf track. And the criteria are extensive. I’ll share a glimpse into our process.
-It was bigger than your average dog. A lot bigger
-The only dogs with tracks that big are a few breeds like great Dane, Irish Wolfhound, some Mastiffs etc. and these types of dogs aren’t normally on hikes way into the mountains
-No hound tracks are that big
-We were in a very remote area
-After following the trail, we could see that it moved extremely athletically
-The tracks showed that the foot was clean, symmetrical and athletic. Characteristics of a wild canid
-It was heavily clawed like a wolf (domestics are heavily clawed also, but the claws usually are deeply impressed into the substrate whereas a wolf’s claw marks are usually at a bit of a higher plane)
-A dog walks more on the heel pad of their feet than a wild canid who walks more on their toes (some characteristics like this take looking at a bunch of tracks before being able to make a judgement)
-Typically, a domestic is super heavy for the size of their feet. In other words, a domestic with a wolf sized foot will outweigh a wolf by a whole bunch (maybe 60 lbs!) and this is often reflected in their tracks
We discovered a horse trail not too far down the ditch from where we found the wolf track, putting a bit of doubt into our theory, as this could signify a way a dog came into this remote area, so we kept investigating.
-There were dog tracks near the horse trail, and, they were all much smaller
-The wolf tracks veered off from the ditch before it reached the horse trail
-The dog tracks predictably stayed near the horse trail, following along with
-We never again saw the wolf track as it stayed away from the horse trail
It’s challenging sometimes to be sure of what you’re seeing in the woods. This is what makes a good tracker highly sought after. It’s just someone who’s seen so many tracks of any kind in about every possible presentation that they can recognize a pattern even in a highly obscure track. Sometimes just a smudge can be recognizable. I many times have found a mountain lion track by just spotting a single lion toe. While driving. They are distinct enough to recognize in this way. Sometimes.
So, after much consideration and debate, we moved on. All of us feeling pretty good that what we had seen was a Mexican Wolf track. I was probably the most skeptical as I strive to keep an open and transparent mind and process, and I know how easily the mind can get locked into a theory. Especially one that I’m biased towards. I was feeling about 65-75% that it was indeed el lobos’ tracks, and was pretty confident in that.
I still had some doubt though and wanted to learn more. One thing that stood out was that the animal was alone. At least that’s how things appeared according to the info we could gather. It’s not unusual for a wolf to travel alone by any means, but it’s also highly likely that they will be traveling in a pair or a pack. Just something to add to our hypothesis. Not really weighting it one way or another, but to consider.
We still had hardly done any research and had no idea if it were likely for us to see wolf sign anywhere near where we were. Another reason for me to stay open. It wasn’t until I got home that I was able to do more research and that’s how this story came to be. Here’s what I gleaned:
-It turns out that we were directly in the middle of Mexican Wolf territory and where we were was right about the spot where three known packs’ territories meet, making it highly likely.
-The exact area that we were has been used for a location to drop ‘problem’ animals who are being relocated and in the recent past, numerous single animals have been dropped there.
-There are over 40 Mexican Grey Wolf packs established in the south western US.
-We were right near a natural crossing for deer making it a prime area for a wolf to hunt (as well as mountain lion judging from the sign we found there.)
My research, including information gleaned from maps and scientific studies, has brought me up to about 85-90% sure that we were indeed looking at tracks of a predator whose ancestors came across Beringia perhaps 70,000 years ago, who colonized the whole continent before being pushed south by larger, stronger wolves, and who were driven to the absolute edge of extinction by humans before being saved (at least for the moment) by federal wildlife regulations and many people concerned for them. A predator who still faces extinction if some have their way.
Like most wildlife projects, especially ones involving large predators, this is a complex issue. There are no easy answers and emotions often run high.
I guess we need to ask ourselves: Do we want to live in a world with wolves?