While the latest news on critically endangered Mexican wolves is encouraging for the most part, the species has endured a lot of adversity in recent decades and is dependent upon a productive captive breeding program.
For Carnivore Specialist Tessa Townsend, she has appreciated the opportunity to learn about this gray wolf subspecies and ensure that the Mexican wolves at Fossil Rim are well taken care of. After learning the ropes as an intern, Townsend joined the carnivore staff in September 2016 – just one month before “Javi” the wild-caught Mexican wolf arrived.
“I was starting from scratch in my knowledge of this species when he arrived,” Townsend said. “I think the recovery aspect is what stands out, as far as how hands off we try to be. If an animal is going to survive in the wild, you need to treat it like a wild animal. If you socialize with these wolves, you are putting them in a bad position.
“Unless the vets need to examine them, the wolves usually only see the carnivore staff or our intern. I’m the primary person who takes care of them, so maybe they don’t run from me as quickly, but if they have a sense of fear that’s not a bad thing. Because of our minimal approach with them and the (American) red wolves, I spend less of my day near them compared to other species.
“I feed them, scan their fence line, and then I’m quickly on my way unless there is some cleaning that needs to be done. I make sure they look healthy and are exhibiting normal behavior.”
While Fossil Rim first acquired Mexican wolves in 1990, there were not actually any at the facility when Townsend arrived until Javi was brought to live in the Jim Jackson Intensive Management Area (IMA). One month after Javi arrived, “Francina” joined him from Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri.
Before Townsend arrived as an intern, Fossil Rim had just lost its previous wolves to old age and was completing some renovations to the facility in order to bring in Javi and Francina. In total, it was about six months until the new wolves replaced the departed ones.
The new breeding pair had two pups in 2018 and two more in 2019, and for a time all six wolves lived together. Today, Javi lives with his sons “Lorenzo” and “Miguel,” while Francina lives in a separate portion of the IMA with her daughters “Margarita” and “Sangria.”
“I can tell all of them apart,” Townsend said. “Not only by their visual markings – primarily in their faces, but by their behavior, too.”
Townsend recalls the exhilaration of the years the pups were born.
“It was really exciting to be here for two litters of Mexican wolf pups, especially considering this wasn’t a species on property during that window of time I took the job,” she said. “I tried to read up on breeding and whelping behavior and listen to what our staff had learned in their experience, but then I was actually doing breeding observations each evening so that we could pinpoint the expected due date, which is necessary in a cross-fostering situation. Knowing the cross-fostering opportunity might come one day is a big deal.
“Although these last two litter sizes were too small to be eligible, we went about things as if it would happen, which was a huge learning opportunity for me. I feel like I will be better prepared now if the cross-fostering window opens for us.
“Once the pups were born, we were with the veterinarians during vaccinations and wellness checks. Otherwise, we mostly let the breeding pair raise the pups as they would in the wild. Witnessing the parental behavior was really cool.”
The carnivore department is making a concerted effort to facilitate red wolf breeding, and Townsend is hoping her experience with Mexican wolf pups will carry over.
“I think most of what I’ve learned from these Mexican wolf litters can apply to red wolf pup care,” she said. “The Mexican wolf father was very protective of his pups, and I don’t know if our red wolf breeding pairs will act quite the same if they have pups.”
As for cross-fostering, in 2020 there were 20 captive-born Mexican wolf pups in America placed into seven wild dens to boost the genetic diversity in the wild population. Thus far, 12 of those pups are known to have survived.
“It would be very exciting if Fossil Rim gets a cross-fostering opportunity with our Mexican wolves,” Townsend said. “It’s when a captive-born pup is transferred into the den of a wild litter to be raised by the wild mother. It’s a lot more effective than placing captive adults in the wild, because the pup will be raised wild and not habituated around humans. Formerly captive adults are more likely to approach humans, associate with dogs, and increase human-wildlife conflict.
“There is a better chance a wild-raised wolf will stay away from all of that. People might remember when we were involved with a cheetah cross-fostering a few years ago, but that occurred entirely in captivity and was only done to ensure the cub’s survival. That is a preferred alternative to hand raising.”
Not all species at Fossil Rim are candidates to return to the wild, but endangered animals like Mexican and red wolves, as well as scimitar-horned oryx and addax, may have that opportunity. Endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens are released into the wild every year.
In order to be eligible for cross-fostering, pups have to be less than 14 days old and born within 6-8 days of a wild litter.
“There must be at least four pups in the captive litter, because you want the captive mother to have at least two pups to raise,” Townsend said. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Service) has to be aware of when the wild mothers are whelping so they can coordinate with facilities. If we have pups, (Carnivore Curator) Jason (Ahistus) notifies his contact at U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”
Each year for a week spanning late March and early April, #LoboWeek arrives as facilities across America take the opportunity to educate people about the value of Mexican wolves.
“It’s a good opportunity to educate more people about the Mexican gray wolf and how it is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America,” Townsend said. “People can learn more about the efforts underway for this species and its recovery in the wild.”
Shockingly, the population of Mexican wolves was down to just seven animals in 1977. Now, the wild population in the United States has increased five years in a row and doubled in that time to reach at least 186. Most of those wolves live in New Mexico with the rest living in Arizona.
There are also roughly 30 wild wolves in Mexico. Plus, approximately 350 Mexican wolves live among more than 55 facilities throughout the U.S. and Mexico.
“It is really encouraging to know they continue to increase in numbers,” Townsend said after the annual survey was released in March by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It gives us hope and proves that the efforts made so far have been working. As for our staff, we keep going with what we’ve been doing and try to keep educating more people so they want to get involved in this recovery.”
The average survival rate of wild Mexican wolf pups is about 50 percent.
“If we are looking for a reason it is that high, I believe it is partially due to the entire pack taking part in pup care,” Townsend said. “The father and siblings are involved to help the mother. Most species don’t have that degree of support.”
Among the wild population, slightly more than half currently wear radio collars.
“Collared animals in the wild give information on their location, which can tell us when a female wolf is about to have pups,” Townsend said. “She will localize in a particular area; that’s really helpful to facilitate cross-fostering events, because then we can coordinate with that (wild) litter that the collared female enables us to locate. You can also see what habitat the collared wolves prefer, which is important to know for an introduction. We need to know the spots they will thrive in.
“If you know where one collared wolf is, you know where that whole pack is in most cases. You learn what the size of their home range is; there’s a lot of knowledge gained through location tracking.”
The efforts for Mexican wolf conservation were boosted when they were determined to be a distinct subspecies of gray wolf.
“It is important because they get a plan more specific to them as the most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf, which helps protect them,” Townsend said. “Plus, being able to say they are different than other wolves helps when you try to build support for them.”
Fossil Rim also has American red wolves and maned wolves. Since maned wolves are actually omnivores and not remotely similar to conventional wolves, it makes more sense to discuss some differentiation between Mexican and red wolves.
“They are pretty different,” Townsend said. “Red wolves are much shier, so you’ll have a better chance of seeing the Mexican wolves on a guided tour (when available). The Mexican wolves will usually be outside and looking at their surroundings, while the red wolves may be hiding in their den or just running away if you are nearby. It’s just their instinct.
“Their howls are also different. Mexican wolves usually have a lower-pitched howl, while there will be more of a yip sound from the red wolf.
“Nutritionally, Mexican wolves are bigger, so we provide them with a bit more food. They have similar diets in the wild, such as deer and small rodents, but a Mexican wolf pack would be able to take down larger prey. Here, both species get limited-ingredient kibble and ground meat.”
“If you want to see either of these wolf species during a guided tour, you should definitely be quiet even as the tour vehicle approaches the wolf yards.”
Townsend said the Mexican wolves definitely get enrichment through observing animals like white-tailed deer and armadillos that are in the vicinity of their yards. As far as enrichment items, however, Mexican and red wolves cannot be given manmade objects that maned wolves are allowed to have.
“Unlike maned wolves, we can’t give the Mexican wolves any plastic items like KONG toys for enrichment,” she said. “It has to be natural items they would find in their native habitat. If you give them a manmade item, if we were to release that wolf, it might go after a similar item in a person’s backyard. You don’t want to tempt them to go near humans.”
Even with the four Mexican wolf pups born in recent years, over many of past 31 years Fossil Rim has been a holding facility for Mexican wolves without breeding efforts. There have been a minimum of nine pups born in total. Sometimes, Fossil Rim supporters ask why a breeding effort is not made every single year and why is it important to have holding facilities.
“Space is very important for the captive wolf population,” Townsend said. “In some years, we have been a holding facility for Mexican wolves. We are taking wolves that aren’t recommended for breeding and giving the space for other facilities that are breeding their recommended pairs that year. The number of wolf yards across all facilities is limited, so each one needs to be utilized in the best interest of the population.”
While the six Mexican wolves Fossil Rim currently has are all related other than the mother and father, Townsend said the Fossil Rim wolves are considered to be very valuable genetically in the captive population overall.
“I think the fact that Mexican wolves form multi-generational packs is my favorite thing about them,” she said. “The offspring from the previous year help take care of the current pups. They learn the important behaviors for survival from their parents that they can later pass on to their own litters.”
When Behind-The-Scenes Tours return at Fossil Rim, guests will have the opportunity to potentially see and hear the resident Mexican wolves.
“I just hope people realize how endangered this species is and that it’s really cool if they are able to see one in person someday,” Townsend said. “The recovery efforts have brought them a long way from seven wolves, but there is still a long way to go for them to be a recovered species.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate