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Wolf Packs in the Gila
The enormously successful Bluestem pack, which presently consists of the alpha pair, two 2-year-old wolves, and five pups, was released into the wild on June 11, 2002. The pack drew its name from the bluestem grass growing at the release site. During the next three years the pack adjusted well to life in the wild. A yearling died of unknown causes and a pup was shot in 2003, but several more pups survived during this period.
By the end of 2005 the pack consisted of seven to nine wolves occupying a home range that included an area in the west-central part of the Apache National Forest, as well as parts of the Ft. Apache and San Carlos Indian reservations.
Alpha male AM507 was found dead of unknown causes in June 2006, but the pack still managed to rear at least two pups until the end of the year. In October, the large pack made forays into the home range of the San Mateo Pack. Bluestem wolves probably killed San Mateo yearling m927. Despite the size and apparent toughness of the Bluestem Pack, a wandering widower, M806, named Laredo at the Wild Canid Center where he was born, was able to negotiate his way into the pack’s social structure and become the new alpha male.
In 2009, the original alpha female, Estrella (AF521) left the pack. Laredo and Estrella’s daughter, AF1042, bred. They produced four pups. Only one survived, but that survivor is now the alpha male of the Maverick Pack on the Ft. Apache Reservation.
Estrella was the mother of six pack leaders in addition to current Bluestem AF1042, including AF758 (Paradise Pack), AM991 (Rim Pack), AM992 (formerly Rim Pack and now Dark Canyon Pack), AF1110 (Hawk’s Nest Pack), AF1111 (Fox Mountain Pack), and F1112 (Elk Mountain Pack). Her grandpups appear poised to continue the tradition, beginning with AM1183 of the Maverick Pack.
Sadly, Estrella was shot illegally in December 2010, but not before leaving her legacy in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Her killer was brought to justice, pled guilty, and paid a fine and restitution totaling $1,250.
Meanwhile, the Bluestem Pack weathered the Wallow Fire in 2011, with two surviving pups at the end of the year. This long lived pack shows signs of having denned again in 2012, ten years after the pack’s initial release.
Update: Bluestem AM806 was found shot to death on July 6, 2012.
Established in 2007, the Fox Mountain Pack has experienced fame and misfortune. The male founder traveled over 50 miles to find his mate in Arizona. The couple settled along the Arizona-New Mexico border at the northern edge of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
They showed great breeding promise with a litter in 2008. The new mother was illegally shot dead, leaving an injured father to care for three male pups. Government officials provided food to help dad, and all four wolves survived the year.
In 2009, a celebrity joined the Fox Mountain boys. Estrella (“star” in Spanish) earned renown as the oldest living wolf Mexican wolf in the wild. Though too old to breed at 13, she bore 22 pups during her reign as the Bluestem Pack alpha female. Estrella struck out on her own in August 2010, tragically falling to a gunshot in December. The shooter pleaded guilty to the crime—one of the few wolf killers ever convicted.
The original Fox Mountain alpha male and one of the three pups disappeared from wolf project telemetry in December 2009. By 2011, one of the remaining male pups found a mate. Denning activity in May signaled a possible litter. Arizona’s largest wild fire ripped through pack territory in June. The pair made news for surviving the Wallow Fire, but produced no pups. They show no sign of denning in 2012. We hope they rekindle romance and make babies next year.
The alpha female, AF1188, was trapped and removed to captivity on October 10th. She is now living at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale, AZ. She will eventually be housed with another captive Mexican wolf for company.
The history of Hawks Nest Pack blends tragedy and triumph. The pack was originally released in 1998, but when the alpha female and other members of the pack were shot that first year, the alpha male was recaptured, paired with a new mate, and re-released in 1999. From that time, the pack has held territories in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Hawks Nest has seen historic firsts: they were the first Mexican wolves in the reintroduction program to make an elk kill, and the first to conceive and produce pups in the wild.
This pack has also experienced merciless persecution at the hands of humans. While Hawks Nest wolves have never been known to kill cattle or cause other problems, many of these wolves have been shot, from the pack’s initial release in 1998 through the present. After an especially rocky first year, the Hawks Nest Pack has carried on, demonstrating unbelievable endurance and exemplifying wolf self-determination. Their home range size in 2010 was estimated at 210 square miles a staggering 134,000 acres (larger than the city of Albuquerque).
The previous alpha male from the Fox Mountain Pack has been seen several times over the past few months with the Hawks Nest pack. This summer we hope to see a new generation of Hawks Nest pups, infused with the toughness, wisdom, and elusiveness of their impressive lineage.
The Luna Pack has been in continuous existence longer than any other pack except the Hawk’s Nest Pack. In 2002, a female wolf from the Pipestem Pack and a male from the Gavilan Pack were paired at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, where they had been sent after killing some livestock. They were released in the Gila Wilderness.
In 2005, a year after the pack moved their home range north to the area around the T Bar Grassland, the alpha female was found with a leg hold trap on a front foot. She was captured, her foot was treated, and she was released to rejoin her pack. Despite her injury, she and her mate reared two pups until year’s end. The following year they successfully raised three pups.
In May 2008, the original alpha male was found dead of unknown causes. In June his ten year old mate disappeared. She was never located again, but her daughter and a wandering male wolf from the Paradise Pack paired up in Luna territory. Early in 2009 the young female also went missing.
Her mate soon began traveling with a female
from the Middle Fork Pack, F1115. The pair had three living pups at the end of
2010. The male disappeared in May 2011, but AF1115 raised two of their pups
until the end of the year. This courageous wolf wasn’t destined to be lonely for
long. In early 2012, a widowed male wolf joined her. With luck, they will
successfully raise another litter of Luna pups this year.
The Middle Fork Pack resides in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, southeast of Reserve and north of Silver City. The top dogs are alpha male 871, originally from the Aspen Pack, and alpha female 861, from the Saddle Pack. The both dispersed away from their natal packs in December 2005, and found each other by February 2006 and established the Middle Fork Pack in the Gila Wilderness. They were parents by that autumn and have been producing pups and making their living in this area ever since.
This determined pair shares a curious trait: each is missing one leg. He lost his when caught in a leghold trap in 2009 and she to an old injury in 2008. While intrepid survivors, it has been difficult to grow their pack, suffering repeated losses of young. But wolves raised in the Middle Fork Pack have also dispersed to join or establish other packs, thus providing important contributions to the recovery program, like their parents before them. The Middle Fork wolves have tangled with cows owned by Mexican businessman Eloy Vallina, who leases hundreds of thousands of acres in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. For that reason, these lobos are at high risk for government removal. Thus far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has resisted removing them, citing the low wild Mexican wolf population and the genetic importance of this vital pack.
In August 2005 the collar signal of Cienega Pack disperser M795 fell silent. Lacking the ability to track him, field researchers added him to the list of wolves whose fate was unknown.
Over a year later, in October 2006, the team trapped a young wolf on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, gave him the studbook number mp1044, and fitted him with a radio collar. They later observed the pup accompanied by four uncollared wolves. The name given to the group, Paradise Pack, was taken from a beautiful creek of that name on the reservation.
During the 2006 end-of-year survey carried out in January 2007, biologists were able to capture and collar two more wolves from the pack. One of those was M795, who had remained undetected for over a year. Now known as AM795, he was the alpha male of the new pack. The pack prospered during 2006 and 2007, qualifying as a “breeding pair” by raising at least two pups until the end of each year.
In 2008 the Paradise Pack suffered a setback. On June 7 a female wolf, AF758, was found dead near the den. The following day the bodies of two pups were found nearby. No cause of death was established for these wolves. During the summer, AM795 wandered alone, searching for a new mate. His search succeeded in November, when he encountered the alpha female of the Lofer Pack, AF1056, who was also wandering in the area. The two remained together, and by the end of the year, they were considered the alpha pair of the Paradise Pack.
In April 2010, after helping to raise at least two pups to the end of the year in 2009, AM795 went missing again. The field team counted an apparently uncollared wolf with AF1056 at the end of 2010. Because AM795 had been wearing a collar at the time his signal was no longer detected, he continued to be listed as “fate unknown” in 2011.
The field team attempted to trap the uncollared wolf in January and again in April 2011, but succeeded only in trapping AF1056 twice, replacing and updating her radio collar in the process. The elusive second wolf in the pack continued to leave tracks. By May, AF1056 had denned, suggesting that the mystery lobo with her was a mature male.
The identity of the mystery wolf was finally revealed in June, when the field team captured and re-collared AM795. He had been missing for fourteen months. Just a short time after AM795 received his new collar, AF1056 slipped out of hers. During efforts to trap and collar pups born in 2011, the field team caught AF1056 and fitted her with a new collar. They also trapped and collared two male Paradise pups.
That first pup collared in 2006 went on to become AM1044, the alpha male of the Hawk’s Nest Pack. Before he died of an illegal gunshot in 2010, he sired a number of pups, three of which are now alpha animals in their own packs: AF1188 of the Fox Mountain Pack, AM1155 of the Luna Pack, and AF1208 of the Hawk’s Nest Pack. The genes of AM795 and AF758 live on in their grandpups.
Update: Fox Mountain AF1188 was captured and taken into captivity on October 10, 2012, for allegedly killing livestock on public and private lands.
Sometime before the late winter breeding season of 2004, F858, a two-year-old dispersing female Mexican gray wolf from the Cienega pack, met an unknown male wolf and formed a new pack in eastern Arizona. The pair settled down in an area along the Mogollon Rim, between U.S. 191 and the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The match was a success. At the end of the year, the pair had at least two surviving pups.
The following year, wolf project personnel caught and collared the male—a wild-born disperser from the Bluestem Pack. They gave him the number M992. The pair produced no living pups in 2005, but in 2006 they again ended the year with at least two offspring.
Events that followed were worthy of a telenovela (Mexican soap opera). In the winter of 2006-2007, M992 was displaced as alpha male by his younger brother, M991. M992 left the Rim Pack by February 2007. During the next few months, he slowly made his way to the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. By mid-June he was traveling with former Francisco F993. They have remained together ever since, forming the Dark Canyon Pack.
Meanwhile, M991 and F858 mated, producing at least two pups that survived until the end of the year. Sadly, M991 was not so fortunate. He was found dead of unknown causes on April 24, 2007.
In November 2007, the field team caught and collared a dispersing member of the Luna Pack in New Mexico. Rather than releasing him where he was caught, they played matchmaker instead, turning M1107 loose near the Rim female and her pups. The two paired up and produced pups in 2008, 2009, and 2010, although several of the pups died from various causes, including two in vehicle collisions on busy U.S. 191.
Misfortune visited the Rim Pack again in 2011, when an unattended campfire ignited the massive Wallow Fire very close to their den site. The field team had not confirmed any pups before the fire, nor did they find any after it swept through the den area. All collared members of the pack did survive the fire.
It appears that the Rim Pack probably has
not denned and produced pups in 2012. At ten years of age, the alpha female has
very likely reached the end of her reproductive life. This long-lived pack,
formed in the wild by wild-born lobos, has held its territory for eight years,
produced many pups, and lived through the largest forest fire in Arizona
history. The Rim Pack lobos are the ultimate survivors.
The San Mateo Mexican wolf pack has struggled to find a place safe from humans. These wolves are named after the San Mateo Mountains in New Mexico, where they first denned in 2004. The mountain range is quality wolf habitat, but it is located outside of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, an artificial—but enforced—administrative designation.
In August 2004, after tangling with some livestock, the pack (just the alpha pair at the time) was relocated south to the recovery area. By November, they had made their way back to the San Mateo Mountains. Officials trapped them again in 2005, and the female had pups at a captive facility. This time the wolf family was moved to Arizona, far from their territory. But the pack immigrated back to New Mexico. The original alpha male (AM796) was shot in February 2007 by agency officials for preying on livestock. The successive alpha male (AM1114) also suffered a tragic fate: he was found dead under suspicious circumstances in 2010.
By February 2011, the alpha female fortunately found love again, with AM1157. The pair and their yearling male pup currently live in the Mangas Mountains and vicinity, in the portion of the Apache National Forest in New Mexico that is administered by the Gila National Forest. Hopefully their future will be more secure than their difficult past.