by Mark MacAllister
On August 16, 2004 AF797 (the former mate of Saddle Pack’s AM574), her mate AM732 (formerly of the Red Rock Pack), and pups m860, f861, f862, m863, and m864 (which were sired by AM574) were captured at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility. This would be an interesting pack to observe, because M732 was a "surrogate father." Even though the pups in this pack were sired by a different father, M732 eventually adopted those pups as his own—the first time in this reintroduction program that a surrogate father was used.
All of the wolves were given physical exams and vaccinations, and all were radio-collared. The following day, they were packed into New Mexico's Gila Wilderness Area on mules and put into a mesh pre-release pen at McKenna Park. These seven wolves—still known as the Saddle Pack—self-released that same day and soon traveled several miles away from the release site. The entire pack remained together throughout the month.
The first three video clips accompanying this article show members of the field team preparing to move the wolves into the Gila Wilderness. The fourth clip focuses on the “Wolf Country” sign placed at the head of the trail into the Gila.
What is a wilderness area?
A wilderness area is a range of federally-owned land that is generally roadless and free of evidence of human impacts. The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, defines wilderness as a place that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the force of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” Though the Wilderness Act also refers to lands “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the law does allow mining, logging, livestock grazing, and other extractive uses in certain situations.
The Gila Wilderness Area is the world’s first wilderness area, designated in 1924 (that is, forty years before the Wilderness Act itself was passed!). At 558,000 acres, it occupies a large piece of the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico. It’s well-suited for Mexican wolf reintroduction: the terrain begins with grassland foothills, rises through juniper woodlands and ponderosa pine forests, and finally arrives at spruce-fir forests on the highest peaks. It is also essentially free of logging, mining and other human activities, though livestock grazing—a source of conflict in wolf recovery efforts west of the Mississippi River—is allowed in parts of the wilderness area.
To learn more, see the U.S. Forest Service’s Gila National Forest webpage.
What’s happened since then?
By reviewing the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project monthly updates, we can track the Saddle Pack’s activities and observe changes in the pack’s composition:
- By September 2004, the pack had moved several miles from its release pen at McKenna Park, but continued to remain together.
- The Saddle Pack remained together throughout October 2004, and was now located several miles from its release pen. The GPS collar that was fitted on AM732 dropped from the wolf and was recovered. It turned out that the GPS collar fitted on AM732 (and also on two other wolves in different packs) had a programmed release mechanism that would help researchers retrieve the collar if the wolf was not recaptured before the batteries failed (this allows the collar to be used on other wolves after the batteries are replaced). Unfortunately, there was a programming error and the collar was released prematurely—just 60 days after it was activated. In short, AM732 was now “off the screen” and could not be tracked with telemetry.
- On November 7, 2004 a New Mexico guide reported that, while he was pursuing a bear in the Gila Wilderness Area with his hounds, his dogs encountered and fought with three wolves. The wolves, which were determined to be members of the Saddle Pack, ran off when the guide fired his gun into the air. Two of the hunting dogs were severely injured and required veterinary care, while the other two dogs sustained only minor injuries. Both dogs injured during the encounter ultimately survived.
- In early December 2004, the Saddle Pack (except for one pup, probably f862...the report is not clear on this point), made a significant movement away from their original release site, though they remained within the Gila.
- The January 2005 report shows several changes in the Saddle Pack. Most importantly, the report noted that AM732 had not been observed since October 22, 2004. Also, pup f862 rejoined the pack. However, pup m860 was not located during either the January 14 or January 28 telemetry flights, and f861 was not located on the January 28 flight.
- By February 2005, AM732 was no longer listed as a member of Saddle Pack. He is now considered "fate unknown," though visual sightings indicate that he is very likely still traveling with the pack. Also, pup m860 was not located during the February 2 or 14 telemetry flights.
- March 2005, the Saddle Pack was located in its traditional home range within the Gila National Forest. However, Saddle male pup 860 was not located despite three airborne search efforts. His last known location was on January 7, 2005.
- On an April 3 telemetry flight, project personnel observed six wolves with the Saddle Pack; one wolf was limping. On the April 25 flight, at least six animals were again observed with the Saddle Pack. However, male pup 860, released with five radio-collared Saddle Pack members in August 2004, has not been located since January 2005. This wolf is now designated "status unknown."
- The May 2005 and June 2005 reports show the Saddle Pack within its traditional homerange. Pack members were also showing denning behaviors in May 2005.
- The Saddle Pack is still within its traditional homerange as of September 30, and Mexican Wolf researchers have observed two pups with the pack.
- On the October 27 aerial telemetry flight, two members of the Saddle Pack—AF797 and sub-adult M863—were located. Saddle sub-adult f861 was located in the Gila Wilderness, 16 miles to the southwest of Saddle alpha female. Saddle sub-adult m864 was not located during the October 27 telemetry flight, but was located during a flight a week earlier.
- The Saddle Pack was very active in November 2005. Researchers located Saddle AF797 with sub-adult M863. On November 18, IFT personnel observed AF797 and M863 with an uncollared wolf. Based on the distinct coloration of the uncollared wolf, the IFT suspects that it may have been AM732. During most of November, the IFT located Saddle sub-adult F861 by itself in the Gila Wilderness. However, on November 28, F861 had moved north into the GNF, and the IFT located it within a few miles of the Luna Pack. After not being located on two consecutive telemetry flights, the IFT found Saddle sub-adult M864 on November 11 in the San Mateo Mountains, over 50 miles from the Saddle pack. The following week, M864 had returned 20 miles to within the GNF boundary, but still was 30 miles from the Saddle Pack. On November 28, the IFT located M864 along the eastern edge of the ASNF, 40 miles northeast of its location the previous week and 35 miles from the Saddle Pack.
- Throughout January, researchers located AF797 in the traditional Saddle Pack home range area in the southern portion of the GNF. On the January 18 telemetry flight, IFT personnel observed M863 and M864 with two uncollared Saddle Pack pups. They captured one male pup, affixed a telemetry collar, assigned it studbook number 1007 and released it on site. The four wolves were 10 miles from the Saddle Pack at the time. Later in January, the IFT located M864 alone, 30 miles from the pack and just outside the recovery area. The IFT located M863 and m1007 together over 25 miles from the Saddle Pack alpha pair.
- In February 2006, wolves M863, M864 and m1007 were moved to the "Single Wolves" category. During the February 6 telemetry flight, researchers located AF797 south of its traditional home range area in the Gila Wilderness. However, it soon returned north and has since remained in the traditional Saddle Pack homerange area in the southern portion of the Gila National Forest. During the February 24 telemetry flight, researchers observed AF797 with an uncollared wolf, likely AM732.
- For March, April, May and June 2006, the Saddle Pack continued to use its traditional home range areas is the southern portion of the Gila National Forest. Researchers located m1007 with the Saddle Pack AF797 in April; he was still there through June.
- For July 2006, the Saddle Pack continued to use its traditional home range areas in the southern portion of the GNF. On July 21, research personnel trapped AM732 and m1007. They fitted AM732 with a GPS collar, and they replaced m1007's pup collar with a GPS collar, then released both animals on-site. On July 24, they observed five pups with the Saddle pack.
- During August, the Saddle Pack continued to use its traditional home range in the southern portion of the GNF. On August 28, during an aerial telemetry flight, researchers observed six pups, increasing the maximum known number of pups from five to six. A second genetic test confirmed that m1007 is an offspring of the Luna Pack, despite being a current member of the Saddle Pack.
- For September, the Saddle Pack continued to use its traditional home range. On the September 18 telemetry flight, researchers located AM732 approximately five miles from AF797 and m1007.
- During October, the Saddle Pack continued to use its traditional home range in the southern portion of the GNF. On the October 2 telemetry flight, researchers located m1007 north of the Saddle Pack and within three miles of f924. On the October 11 telemetry flight, researchers observed AM732, based on characteristic coloration.
- During November, the Saddle Pack continued to use its traditional home range in the southern portion of the GNF. On the November 13 telemetry flight, researchers located the pack just outside the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA). On November 24, researchers confirmed that the Saddle Pack was involved in a second depredation incident in New Mexico.
- On the December 11 telemetry flight, researchers located the Saddle Pack in the northern portion of the Gila Wilderness, less than five miles from the Middle Fork Pack.
- The research team's final report for the 2006 year tells us that the Saddle Pack is considered a breeding pair and consists of five wolves observed during the January 2007 population survey. Four of these animals have functioning radio collars. On January 18, researchers captured f1016 and fitted it with a radio collar. The pack remained in the northern portion of the Gila Wilderness.
- In February 2007, the pack remained in the GNF and in the northern portion of the Gila Wilderness. On the February 14 telemetry flight, researchers observed four wolves. On February 13, a permittee discovered a calf in this area that researchers later confirmed had been injured by a wolf. The calf died on February 22 from its injuries. This resulted in a third depredation incident for M1007. On February 24, the USFWS issued a permanent removal order for M1007 for the three confirmed depredation incidents involving three cows in New Mexico.
- The pack remained in the GNF and in the northern portion of the Gila Wilderness throughout the month of March 2007. On March 16, researchers lethally removed m1007 for three confirmed depredation incidents involving three cows in New Mexico.
- Throughout April, researchers located the pack north of the Gila Wilderness. Researchers were unable to locate f1016 during April, despite search efforts. On April 2, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a permanent removal order for AM732 and AF797 for three confirmed depredation incidences.
- On May 26, 2007, researchers captured AM732 and removed it to permanent captivity. On May 31, researchers captured AF797 and seven pups and placed them in captivity with AM732 at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in New Mexico. Researchers were unable to locate f1016 during May despite search efforts. Saddle f1016 is now considered a single wolf.
- On September 26, researchers and employees of the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility captured the seven Saddle Pack pups for their last round of vaccinations. All seven pups were in good heath.
About the author:
Mark MacAllister is the Project Coordinator for Field Trip Earth.
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