The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Kyle Deas
At the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Mo., isolated from human contact, lives a Mexican gray wolf.
He is small: five feet long and three feet high, the size of a German shepherd. His fur is dark gray over most of his body, but he has a shock of white on his cheeks and chest.
He has no name, only a studbook number — 1049. But he is special.
He doesn’t know, but sometime this year (2011), 1049 will be tranquilized, flown from St. Louis to a pen in Arizona and left to acclimate for a few days. Then, one day, the cage door will open. He will walk out and become a wild animal once more.
In doing so, 1049 will enter a world far more dangerous — a world governed by human laws and human power, whose rules he cannot possibly understand or obey.
The most successful wolf reintroduction effort is that of a different species of wolf — the timber wolf — in Yellowstone National Park.
In the mid-1990s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concerned about booming elk and coyote populations inside Yellowstone, trapped over 60 Mackenzie Valley timber wolves in Canada and released them into parts of Wyoming and Montana.
The program was a startling success. Today, over 1,000 timber wolves live in the greater Yellowstone area — so many that Montana and Idaho declared a hunting season for timber wolves in 2009.
Unlike the Fish and Wildlife Service success with the timber wolf, the Mexican wolf reintroduction program proved a trickier proposition. Mexican wolves once ranged over what would become the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, but by the 1950s they were nearly extinct.
In 1998, the agency released 11 wolves into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, an area of 7,000 square miles in Arizona and New Mexico.
"We have a limited number of wolves to work with, and the genetics have been extremely complicated," said Tom Buckley, a spokesman for the service’s office in Albuquerque.
To prevent inbreeding, researchers keep a meticulous studbook detailing the bloodlines of every individual. This has limited the number of wolves that the wildlife service can release, and in what combinations they could form into packs.