The Hidden Meaning in the Howl of the Wolf: A Wolf Conservation Story

It’s easy to get upset about painted dogs, tigers, and other well-known predators around the world who are currently facing extinction. When we are not the ones who live with or near them, it may seem like a simple problem with a simple solution: stop killing these animals. But what about the animals in our own backyard? Where is our concern for the numerous species currently facing extinction in North America? Have we found a solution for our own problems?

By the 1970’s, Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, were extinct in the United States. Seen as a nuisance and blamed for loss of cattle and property, bounties were put on the wolves, leading to over-killing. Aldo Leopold, an American author and conservationist, describes the effects of eliminating wolf populations in the U.S. in his short story “Thinking Like A Mountain” (a story I highly recommend looking up and reading):

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails…In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

~ Aldo Leopold

Mexican wolves have been reintroduced into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in Arizona and New Mexico

However, there were reports of a few wolf sightings in Mexico, so a bi-national breeding program lead by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Mexican government was created, and seven individuals, believed to be the last wild Mexican wolves, were captured and brought into captivity. Almost 40 years later, and with reintroduction starting in 1998, there are now an estimated 100 individuals living in the wild and around 300 living in captivity. Through years of collaboration, dedication, and support, the Mexican wolf is once again roaming the American Southwest.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, an institution that has been home to 28 Mexican wolves since it joined forces with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other participating zoos in 2003, is currently home to two wolves: Sedona, a 14-year-old female, and Wolfman Jack, Jack for short, a 5-year-old male who just recently joined the Zoo family in December 2016. Presently, Jack will act as a companion for Sedona (her sister Maya passed away last summer). He has the potential to sire pups here in the future who could be cross-fostered into the wild (see this article about cross-fostering wolf pups into the wild) or remain in zoos to produce pups of their own. Described by his keepers as inquisitive, Jack has transitioned well into life in Cincinnati and with Sedona.

Wolfman Jack (Photo: Chelsea Wellmer)

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, the future looks promising for Mexican wolves, but there is still a lot of work to be done. In 2016, we saw the largest killing of Mexican wolves in the wild — 14 individuals (investigations are still ongoing). Much of the backlash against the wolves is attributed to lack of understanding. Mexican wolves actually play an important role in the ecosystem.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

~ Aldo Leopold

Electric fencing with flags used to reduce wolf – livestock conflict in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. (Photo: Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team)

My Great Uncle Norm grew up as part of a cattle ranching family in New Mexico. In the 1940’s, his father, a member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, lobbied against the unnecessary killing of predators, including the coyote and wolf, in New Mexico. Why would a cattle rancher try to protect the very same predators who may go after his cattle? The answer at that time: too many jackrabbits. When the natural ecology of the area was altered, in this case too few predators, everyone suffered, including the jackrabbits as their population was now too large for the land to support. My uncle and his family had an understanding that everything has a purpose and that a balance must be kept.

Mexican wolf pups in the Prieto Pack in June 2016
(Photo: Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team)

The story of the Mexican wolf is tied up in conflict with human beings. As stewards of the land, we have a responsibility to understand the natural balance and, at the very least, respect the other living things we share the world with. We must look for ways to minimize conflict and unnecessary killing of native animals, even the ones that are currently not threatened or endangered, a status that could easily change.

So what can you do to help? Learn! Learn about the environmental problems in your own backyard. Learn about what flora and fauna should be there and how they contribute to that environment. Step into some different shoes and look at a problem from a new angle… Maybe that snake in your backyard is eating the mice trying to raid your cupboards. Concerned about raccoons getting into the trash? Try taking the trash out the morning of collection so the raccoons don’t have time to eat your tasty leftovers. Enjoy the beautiful world in which we live. Feel free to stop by the Zoo to watch Sedona and Jack, and imagine the world through their eyes.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

~ Aldo Leopold

Mexican wolf pup howling (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)