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Wolf Center in Julian 'disperses' three Mexican Gray Wolves to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo

There are 23 Mexican Gray Wolves living at the California Wolf Center, spread out over 50 acres in Julian. It may seem like plenty of room, but when males get to be more than one and a half years old, the place gets kind of crowded.

That’s when the males become independent and get the itch to leave their mothers and start their own pack, a process called “dispersal.”

And we have a pack of wolves where … it’s mom and dad and seven boys. And so these brothers are starting to have a little bit of tension. But what is awesome is we are able to have that natural dispersal,” said Ciera MacIsaac, the wolf care coordinator for the California Wolf Center.


This is where Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo comes in. MacIsaac said Brookfield has opened up a “wonderful habitat space.” This week, the Wolf Center will send three wolves there to imitate the natural process of dispersal of young males.

“And they’re going to be going to Brookfield Zoo, which is very exciting!” MacIsaac added.

The California Wolf Center is part of a nationwide system they call the Mexican Wolf SAFE Program. It’s a captive breeding program that has brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

Theresa Kosen is the executive director of the Wolf Center. She said in the 1970s, Mexican Gray Wolves got down to only 13 in the wild.

But recent counts, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, have brought much better news. Today, there are at least 257 wild Mexican Gray Wolves in the U.S., where their primary habitat is Arizona and New Mexico.

Ciera MacIsaac is the wolf care coordinator for the California Wolf Center in Julian, where she stands near one of the center's Mexican Gray Wolves. March 27, 2024.
Thomas Fudge
Ciera MacIsaac is the wolf care coordinator for the California Wolf Center in Julian, where she stands near one of the center's Mexican Gray Wolves. March 27, 2024.

“About 40% of them are collared so there’s one collared wolf in every pack in the wild. So they use that collar to track them. And then they can do a count of how many they have in the wild,” Kosen said.

Two years ago their count increased 23%. Last year’s census showed it was up another 6%.

MacIsaac said estimates for the species in Mexico are not as good. There, she said, they are down to about 15 animals.

Conservation groups increase wild populations with protection programs. They also “cross-foster” wolf pups born in captivity with pups born in the wild.

“So let’s say we were selected to breed,” MacIsaac said. “We would be watching our female and the moment that we know that she has had puppies, we will contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Mexican Wolf SAFE Program, and say, ‘OK we've had puppies on May 1st.’ And then they will check their wild packs to see if there’s a mom out in the wild who has had puppies.”

If there is a wild den with puppies, born right about the same time, the captive pups will be moved there quickly and carefully. They’ll be scent marked to match the wild pups, and placed in the den when the adult wolves are absent. And when the adults return, MacIsaac said, “It is the slogan of the cross-fostering program that mom can’t count, and so there they go! They’re out in the wild. And what’s really awesome is wolves are very well known for adopting.”

The management of the endangered Mexican Gray Wolf in captivity boils down to breeding, introducing pups to the wild, and transferring animals, like the ones going to the Brookfield Zoo.

Hopefully in the end that means wild populations will continue to increase.

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