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Efforts In San Diego Help Critically Endangered Wolf

Evening Edition

A vibrant chorus cascades down the mountainside near Julian. The talented vocalists are gray wolves. They roam in a 50-acre conservation and research facility known as the California Wolf Center, founded in 1977 to educate the public about wildlife and ecology (story continues below).

"Here at the center we have 23 wolves," said Erin Hunt, general manager of the California Wolf Center. "We have six Alaskan gray wolves, and the Alaskan gray wolves are here for education and research purposes. We also house Mexican gray wolves, which are critically endangered, with only about 50 living in the wild today."

Aired 11/8/11 on KPBS News.

Once on the brink of extinction, Mexican gray wolves are staging a comeback. A conservation center in San Diego is helping with the effort to reintroduce them to the wild.

Mexican gray wolves were nearly extinct in the 1970s, with just five remaining in the wild. But the survivors were captured and the species was saved. Today, the Wolf Center is part of a national effort to give them a second chance.

"We have had one pack of wolves born here actually get to go out into the wild and they lived successfully in the wild for many years," said Hunt. "And the alpha female of that pack has offspring that are still currently living in the wild."

Four Mexican gray wolf pups were born at the California Wolf Center in April 2011. The pups will likely be selected for breeding or release when they're old enough.
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Above: Four Mexican gray wolf pups were born at the California Wolf Center in April 2011. The pups will likely be selected for breeding or release when they're old enough.

Three more wolves are set to be released this fall or winter to the reintroduction area along the Arizona and New Mexico border.

The wolves preparing to be reintroduced have very limited human contact. Most of the packs are off display and kept far away from visitors.

"We limit the amount of time we spend in each enclosure," said Hunt, "and we only enter certain areas of the enclosure. You don’t want to release a wolf that’s gotten a little too used to being around people by being in the captive environment," Hunt explained.

Hunt said the wolves thrive at the center -- four pups were born in April. But when they’re released into the wild they face many challenges.

This map shows the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction location along the Arizona and New Mexico border.
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Above: This map shows the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction location along the Arizona and New Mexico border.

"That’s when the work really begins," said Chelsea Davis, the Center's animal care and facilities manager. "The wolves in the wild are monitored and checked weekly."

One way they're monitored is through howl surveys. "So they'll go out around dawn or dusk – peak activity times for wolves," said Davis. "And they'll actually try to get wolf packs to howl -- and you can tell two individuals and two pups."

Another way is through special micro-chipped collars.

"A lot of times you’re expecting the wolves will stay in the area where you released them and then you find them 60 miles away from there by the end of the week," said Davis.

The wolves are also observed to make sure they’re hunting and eating the right prey, such as elk, deer and fish. That’s because the reintroduction area is federal grazing land where roaming cattle and sheep often become tasty temptations.

The California Wolf Center

The California Wolf Center is a conservation and research center located 50 miles east of San Diego near Julian. The center is home to Alaskan and Mexican gray wolves -- some of which are exhibited for educational purposes.

Historically, wolves were killed by ranchers for attacking livestock. At the Wolf Center, researchers are experimenting with taste aversion, which is lacing meat with a nausea-inducing chemical.

Dan Moriarty, a professor of pshychological sciences at the University of San Diego is using the technique to teach captive Mexican gray wolves that eating sheep will make them sick.

"Some people describe this as a process of going from yum to yuck," he said. "It tasted good when you first encountered it, but after this illness episode it simply doesn’t taste good anymore.

Moriarty said the question is whether the learned aversion during captivity will be enough to prevent the wolves from attacking livestock in the wild.

"Certainly it’s going to be enough to prevent them from eating, and it’s hard to imagine why a predator would attack something -- logically why would it attack something that is distasteful.

The real answer is going to come with the field trials, Moriarty added.

Moriarty is hopeful the aversion will be an effective tool to boost the number of successful reintroductions. The goal is to create a thriving ecosystem –just like their sister, the Alaskan gray wolf has done in the northern Rockies. They too were on the brink of extinction and were reintroduced in the wild starting in 1995.

This illustration shows the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem before and after the Alaskan gray wolves were returned to the wild, starting in 1995.
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Above: This illustration shows the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem before and after the Alaskan gray wolves were returned to the wild, starting in 1995.

"So in Yellowstone national park when wolves returned, they kept the elk herds on the move. This prevented overgrazing which allowed willow and aspen trees to return and thrive. With the return of the willow and aspen, we saw a decrease of erosion in the stream beds in the river ecosystems in the park, which meant that song birds, fish, amphibians beavers and all sorts of other life could return to those areas," said Hunt.

That’s why there’s such excitement over four Mexican gray wolf pups born at the center earlier this year. Hunt said they’ll likely be selected for breeding or release.

"It could take several years for that to happen," said Hunt. "As I said they are very young animals right now, but it is definitely a potential in their future."

Conservationists had hoped to have 100 Mexican gray wolves in the wild by 2005, but six years later, they’re only half way there.

Comments

Avatar for user 'serious'

serious | November 8, 2011 at 9:07 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

Erin Hunt said above "So in Yellowstone national park when wolves returned, they kept the elk herds on the move. What she or he fails to say is that since the introduction of wolves into Yellowstone the northern herd of elk was numbered at around 20,000 animals. That herd was at a stable or slightly growing number. In a mere 16 years the wolves have decimated that herd down to less than 5000 animals. She says the wolves have "kept them moving" that is true but she is not saying that in 16 years the wolves have killed or eaten almost 3/4 of that herd. Wolves do not abide by game managers to keep the ungulate populations in check. The management goal was supposed to keep the numbers of wolves down to around 75 or so in the park but the wolf advocates not caring one bit about the deer, the elk, and the moose and bighorn sheep have repeatedly thwarted any management of the wolf. (I am talking management about the surrounding states now, not Yellowstone) They have fought tooth and nail in the courts to not abide by the set agreements of all parties at the time, which at the time included Defenders of Wildlife and other such so called conservation groups, the hunters groups, the ranchers and all other parties involved. They are doing this in the whole state of Idaho and Montana. I may be slightly wrong on how many wolves they thought Yellowstone could accomodate and keep a balanced eco system.
As you all know hunting is not allowed in the national parks, however the wolf advocates are hell bent on not allowing any management whatsoever of this apex predator outside the parks.

If you do your research you will see that the numbers of wolves which all parties agreed upon in the state of Idaho which was originally set at I believe 150 wolves has grown to an alarming number of anywhere between 1800 and more probabably 5000 wolves. The state only counts wolves at the time when there numbers are fewest in the year, they also do not count wolves that are not collared or known to run with collared animals. All the people who live near and around these predators know and will tell you your being lied to about how destructive the wolf is to not only the wildlife but to the beef that at least some of you like to eat, the pets and horses and all other critters associated with man.

Not to mention the diseases and parasites wolves carry. Before the wolf was introduced Echinoccocus Granulosus was not prevalent at all in the lower 48. Now they are spreading this horrible tapeworm to not only the deer, the elk and all other hooved creatures but they are spreading it to the pet dogs who live near the wolf. It is being found in the lungs of elk and moose that are harvested and will soon be in the free range beef more than likely.

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