It’s been a long journey for a lone Mexican gray wolf – from the forests of southeastern Arizona, through the dusty high desert of central New Mexico to the edge of what is known as the Yellowstone of the Southwest.
Its paws have covered hundreds of kilometers in the last five months.
Having arrived at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in northern New Mexico, she wandered far beyond the boundaries established along the Arizona-New Mexico border for the management of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. The recovery area – which spans tens of thousands of square kilometers – is home to more than 240 endangered predators.
Federal wildlife managers confirmed to the Associated Press that they have no immediate plans to capture the lone wolf nicknamed Asha. But they will continue to track her movements.
Known to biologists by its formal name F2754, the wolf is equipped with a GPS collar. Data collected since her release in June in the Apache National Forest in Arizona shows that she has covered more than 1,046 kilometers.
That includes about 140 miles from the Interstate 40 crossing — a major thoroughfare that marks the northern boundary of the wolf recovery area.
From late October to early November, she traveled about 13 miles a day. Then she began to slow down as she ventured in and out of the Valles Caldera reservation — an area that includes dense forests, vast meadows and some of New Mexico’s most famous elk herds. It is also an area considered sacred by the Native American tribes in the region.
It’s hunting season, and wolf recovery experts say it’s likely F2754 is feeding on elk carcasses. Small game like rabbits is another possibility, as she does not have a pack to help her hunt.
Environmentalists have been pressing federal managers to leave the wolf alone, suggesting it is heading north to Colorado in search of a mate. They also pointed out that previous efforts to relocate her were unsuccessful after her first attempt to head north last winter.
Nearly two dozen environmental groups sent a letter to state and federal authorities on Nov. 6, saying the wolf’s movements are proof that recovery limits are insufficient to meet the needs of the expanding population.
Ranchers in New Mexico and Arizona, who have long complained that wolves are responsible for dozens of animal deaths every year, are concerned about any expansion of the wolves’ range.
It has been 25 years since Mexican gray wolves were first reintroduced to the southwestern US. Despite many fits and starts, federal wildlife managers over the past seven years have seen numbers trend upward, with last year marking the highest number of Mexican gray wolves documented in Arizona and New Mexico since the program began.
The wolf recovery team also counted more breeding pairs and pups last winter than in any year since reintroductions began.
The effort to return the predators to their historic range has been the source of numerous legal challenges over the years, from both environmentalists and ranching groups. The latest cases pending in federal court center on the rules governing wolf recovery, namely the federal regulation that requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove all Mexican wolves north of Interstate 40, even in cases where the Wolf does not cause inconvenience or losses.
If federal authorities eventually recaptured F2754, she would be placed in captivity and paired with another wolf in the hopes that they would have pups. Then the family could be released back into the wild the following spring or summer.
Until then, all eyes will be on the signals from your GPS collar.