By Miriam Raftery
February 21, 2010 (Julian) – “Mexican gray wolves are the rarest land animals in North America. They are highly endangered—there are only 52 in the wild,” said Erin Hunt, general manager of the California Wolf Center in Julian, which is open to the public, researchers, photographers, education and youth groups. “This is a binational effort," she added, "because once, the only population left was in captivity.”
Mexican gray wolves, whose range formerly included Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and much of Mexico, were completely eliminated in the wild in the 1950s. But captive breeding efforts kept the sub-species alive at a handful of facilities, including this facility in Julian.
In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing Mexican wolves into the Blue Range area of Arizona under the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan. More have since been released in New Mexico. (photo, right: recently released gray wolves)
The road to freedom for the wolves has not been without some bumps.
“They have to learn how to be wild wolves,” said Hunt. Only one pair per year is allowed to be released, and the freed wolves are fitted with radio tracking collars. “We supply food at first, but typically after a couple of weeks, they will start hunting on their own.”
A Mexican Wolf Fund has been established to help assure survival of the species. That includes hiring human “range riders”, providing fencing, and at times, moving livestock during birthing times to minimize problems with livestock, humans, or pets.
Not every release has been successful. One older female had to be taken back into captivity to preserve her life after she began preying on livestock.
Today, there are about 50 to 90 Mexican grey wolves in existence, including 19 that reside at the California Wolf Center, ech about the size of a German shepherd.
The Center is also home to an “ambassador pack” of about ten larger Alaskan grey wolves, an intact familial pack.
“Gray wolves are a keystone species, which means that many others depend on them,” Hunt noted.
Not a sanctuary or reserve, the facility here was founded in 1977 by researchers Paul and Judy Kenis, who wanted to teach people about the environment and wolves’ vital role in the ecosystem. It is a breeding facility, where pups are often born in spring.
Wolves slated for release are kept in relatively large enclosures measuring ½ to two acres, off view to the public. But others are on display at the Center, where visitors are welcome. Options include:
Wolves of North America education programs: These are offered Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Advance reservations are required. Cost: $10 adults, $7 seniors 55 and up, $6 for children 12 and under.
Private tours: $25/person, or $20 for members
Photo tours: Photographers actually go INSIDE the wolf enclosures with a staff member. Cost: $75/person or $100/2 people for 2 hours with donation of photos; $150/person or $175/two people without photo donation. Photo tour participants must be 18 or older.
Wolf encounters: Educational field trips for students K-12 as well as scouts and other youth groups are available Tusday through Friday by appointment, with group discounts available.
Additional programs are also available.
Visits to the Center also include time in the education center, which features wolf exhibits and wolf-themed souvenirs. In addition, the Center offers courses in wildlife handling and seeks volunteers.
Membership ranges from $25 for individuals to $50 for a family of four; up to $1000 for higher level “wolf guardian” memberships with added benefits and $500 for corporate sponsorships. You can also sponsor a Mexican gray wolf for $30.
For more information on visiting the Center, or learning how you can donate to help protect these endangered species, visit www.californiawolfcenter.org , call (619)234-WOLF or (760)765-0030, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.