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.
Also, the gray wolves released into Yellowstone were already wild. But no wild Mexican wolves exist. Every Mexican wolf that has been released into the Southwest wilderness was raised in captivity, many of them at the Endangered Wolf Center west of St. Louis.
"They’re naïve," Jackie Fallon, the animal curator at center, said of the Mexican wolves released into the wild. "They’ve had to learn all this on the fly, yet they have all this easy food available like cattle and sheep. I always liken it to, would you rather cook a 10-hour dinner or buy it from the grocery store?"
Another challenge is that no area comparable to Yellowstone Park exists in the range of the Mexican wolf. Yellowstone provided the attractions and the infrastructure for a thriving tourism industry, which aided in awareness and support for the gray wolf reintroduction.
So far, no one has figured out how to make money or generate publicity off of the wild Mexican wolf population — a few dozen shy individuals scattered through a vast expanse of uninhabited wilderness.
The Fish and Wildlife Service continued to release Mexican wolves throughout the early 2000s, and by 2006 their numbers in the wild had climbed to over 60 individuals. In 2009, though, only 42 wolves could be accounted for. The rest were dead – some by natural causes and some by illegal killings.
Buckley acknowledged the program’s recent troubles but said the various organizations involved are drafting new protocols to better execute the reintroduction.
Among the troubles were delays in getting new wolves into the wild. A pack was scheduled for release in the summer of 2010, but that was delayed until early 2011.
"We catch a lot of heat, you know, from folks who say, you’ve got all these wolves, why don’t you let ‘em loose?" said Buckley. "We believe it’s better to take a measured approach and be successful than to take a rushed approach and just dump them out there."
"That would be basically wasting the animals," he said. "I couldn’t live with myself if we did that."
For now, 1049 waits. He is three years old. He does not know a life outside of his pen at the Endangered Wolf Center.
And little does he know that somewhere in the Blue Range Recovery Area a potential mate lives alone. Fallon hopes that 1049 will eventually join the female wolf, and that the two will start a pack.
"Wild-born cubs are the real success," said Fallon. "That’s always best."