From Captivity to the Blue!: One Animal's Story

Many zoos and other captive breeding facilities maintain as a goal the release of captive born animals back to the wild.  However, this goal is often not a reality for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes, the habitat of the species is no longer suitable for them, or the reason for the decline of the species in the wild has not changed in a way that a reintroduction program is viable, but is rather is destined to fail.  Some examples of a species that have had a chance at this lofty goal include the California condor, black footed ferret, or peregrine falcon.  These species are just a few that illustrate how zoos and other breeding facilities can be a vital source for endangered species and reach the goal of restoring them to areas of the animal’s historic range.  However, the key to the success of any of these restoration programs is tolerance by humans, adequate habitat and food, and appropriate behavior of the animal themselves.

A recent restoration program that is still going through this process is the Mexican Gray Wolf Reintroduction Project  in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in Arizona and New Mexico. It is uncertain at this point if this program will join those noted above in the list of successful reintroduction efforts.  The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) or lobo, is a subspecies of gray wolf that is known to be the most genetically distinct of the recognized subspecies of gray wolf found in North American.  It is also one that is considered to exist into the 21st Century solely due to the careful captive breeding efforts of nearly 50 facilities in the U.S. and Mexico.   And although there is suitable habitat for the lobo to be reintroduced, the primary reason for the species decline has not been completely eliminated-conflict with humans and human persecution.  Although support for recovery of the Mexican wolf is not 100%, there were many that showed a high level of support for their restoration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began to release wolves into remote areas of Arizona in March 1998.  Individual animals from a variety of breeding facilities were selected for the first several years of releases.  These animals were selected on a variety of criteria including genetics, behavior, and physical and reproductive qualities that would indicate the best candidates for release into the wild.  One such animal was a male wolf, known as M806.

Male wolf M806, or “Laredo”, was born at the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center (WCSRC), just outside St. Louis, Missouri.  And although it is a common human tendency to “name” animals in their care, the wolf does not obviously know their name, and it is more for a human’s benefit and does not impact the animal either positively or negatively.  For all management purposes, the animal is referred to in all records and documents by their individual number, rather than the name given by the facility where they came from.  But, back to the story.

M806 was born in 2003 at the WCSRC, and showed potential for being an appropriate release candidate for the recovery program in the southwest.  The criteria for release into the wild were met:  first of all, he was born in a large litter, where his release into the wild would greatly aid the genetics of the wild population of Mexican wolves, but yet there were other siblings still in captivity to continue the needs of the captive program.  Secondly, he was reared in a large pack and aided in the rearing of a litter born in 2004 as a yearling wolf, learning appropriate pack behavior from both his parents and other siblings.  While in captivity, he also was a successful surrogate parent for a litter of pups that were born via artificial insemination to his mate.  AtWCSRC, he lived in a large, naturalistic enclosure, fed upon native prey when available, and was provided opportunities to chase and hunt smaller prey that might find their way into the enclosure. 

In late 2005, M806 was transferred from the breeding facility in Missouri to the USFWS pre-release facility in New Mexico, and was paired with a female wolf, known as F838.  The female was also specifically selected for many of the same reasons that M806 was, and the pair mated and produced a litter of two pups in the spring of 2006.  When the time was appropriate, the adults and pups were captured from the pre-release facility and transferred to their release site near Alpine, AZ.  This pack was known as the Meridian Pack and they “self-released” themselves from a mesh pen placed at Middle Mountain in the Apache National Forest in Arizona in July 2006.  Unfortunately, within a short few months, both the male pup and the adult female were found to have died and there were only two members of the Meridian Pack left alive-M806 and his female pup f1028.  The two stayed together for a few more months, and joined a neighboring pack known as the Bluestem Pack.  M806 was able to successfully gain acceptance into the pack as the new breeding male, and bred in the winter of 2007 with the resident breeding female F521 (who had recently lost her mate).  The female pup stayed with the pack for a short time, but then dispersed and began a journey as a lone wolf.  The Interagency Field Team confirmed that M806 and F521 had produced a litter in 2007, and it is suspected that they also produced a litter in 2008. 

To date, M806 remains as the breeding male of the Bluestem Pack and is still living in a remote area of the Apache National Forest in Arizona.  The pack is avoiding humans and reproducing.  The staff at the WCSRC is proud to be a part of this recovery program, and is hopeful that M806 will continue to live in the Blue Range as a wild wolf.  And although it is important to have an occasional captive wolf released into the wild for genetic reasons, the key to success of this program is to have wolves breed in the wild and have their wild born pups become breeding wolves in the future.  M806 is showing that with proper captive management, and a little bit of luck avoiding humans, that zoos and other captive breeding facilities can achieve their goal of releasing animals back into the wild with the hopes of restoring endangered species.