RESERVE, N.M. – “We’ve got a wolf coming in!” Susan Dicks yells.
A veterinarian and biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dicks is in an open field about 30 minutes outside of Reserve, a village of 300 in western New Mexico. Along side her are other agency veterinarians as well as volunteers and interns.
Everyone stops what they are doing and scrambles to get ready. A mat is laid out in a truck bed, syringes are pulled from supply bags and a data recorder is assigned.
They all turn at the distant sound of a helicopter. It lands, and out comes a veterinarian holding a limp Mexican gray wolf.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing its annual Mexican wolf count.
John Oakleaf, incident commander for the Mexican Wolf Project, says everything runs in stages.
A spotter plane finds the location of a wolf pack, and the helicopter flies under the plane to count the number of wolves in a pack A select few have radio collars on them.
“Those are the animals they target from the helicopter,” Oakleaf says.
Once they target a wolf, the darter takes over, tranquilizing the animal with a drug that knocks it out for around two hours.
The wolf is muzzled and placed on the open truck bed. Veterinarians move in to begin processing it.
“I tend to get very focused on the animal. What is the body temperature of the animal? What is the status of the animal?” Dicks says.
The wolf is weighed, vaccinations are given and an intern takes measurements. Its teeth are checked, and its blood is drawn for testing. The wolf is placed in a kennel before it fully regains consciousness.
Employees of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then drive it up the mountain and release it back into the wild to find its pack.
“Wolves are wonderful at finding other wolves. Through howling, scent, they’ll put down scat, wolves travel long distances and end up with other wolves somehow,” Oakleaf says.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting counts on Mexican gray wolves since 1998, the start of an effort to reintroduce the species to Arizona and New Mexico.
“We started with only seven wolves,” says Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “From those seven wolves we built a captive breeding population that now hovers between 215 and 300 animals.”
Approximately 80 wolves run free in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which spans from Arizona to New Mexico.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced a revised rule, set to take effect Feb. 17, that expands the area in which the Mexican wolf can freely roam.
“We did this to allow the population to grow. Our old area is not large enough for the population to grow without increasing density in those areas. Even with an increase in density, it wouldn’t grow much,” Barrett says.
Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area currently includes the Apache and Gila national forests. Under the revisions, wolves can occupy any one of three set zones.
Wolves may be initially released and naturally disperse into Zone One: the Apache, Gila and Sitgreaves national forests; the Payson, Pleasant Valley and Tonto Basin Ranger Districts of the Tonto National Forest; and the Magdalena Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.
Zone Two has been designated as the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. Only pups less than 5 months old will be initially released in this area, but wolves can be translocated here later.
Zone Three takes up the entire area south of Flagstaff and Albuquerque in Arizona and New Mexico, respectively. No initial releases or translocations will occur here, but wolves may run freely in this area.
“Zone Three is a limited habitat,” Barrett says. “We don’t expect the wolves to go there, but if they do, they can run freely. We just might be a little bit more aggressive in that area when it comes to the management of them.”
Some ranchers in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area say that the current area occupied by wolves already poses a financial problem.
Criag Thiesen purchased his ranch in 2011. The previous owners were selling it for a significantly low price.
“Wolves were killing the cows, and they just couldn’t take it,” Thiesen says.
Twenty-eight fatal cow depredations were confirmed in 2013, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The government has been compensating ranchers for their losses since the Mexican gray wolf project was formulated, but Thiesen says the funds aren’t evenly distributed.
“They always tell you they don’t have enough money. They spend between $1 million and $4 million per wolf,” Thiesen says. “I’ve lost $750,000, and they have given me $15,000 something. They’re definitely not spending it on us.”
In order to be compensated for loss of cattle, the government in Carton County, where Reserve is located, does a thorough investigation. Often the remains are too decomposed to identify a cause.
Oakleaf says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is willing to work with the ranchers. He says he understands the wolves have an impact, but he says he wants to help find a solution for both parties.
“There is an old saying: The closer you are to wolves the less you like them,” Oakleaf says.“There is good reason. If it costs you money, you are less likely to appreciate it. Every one is an independent business, so you work with the individual rancher and discuss positive solutions or things that that rancher thinks will work on his particular lot.”