Biology With A Heartbeat: Protecting and Nurturing Endangered Wolves

by Madison Jones

On May 6, 2012, a litter of Mexican Gray wolves was born in the safety of the Wolf Conservation Center (WWC) in South Salem, NY. Founded in 1999 by French pianist Hélène Grimaud, the Wolf Conservation Center’s mission is to nurture and protect the nation’s wolf populations, while educating the public about the importance of wolves to the ecosystem. The WWC became a part of the national Species Survival Plan program in 2004, and began taking an active role in preserving and expanding wolf populations, by breeding wolves to be reintroduced to the wild.

Strategically placed cameras allow staff and the public to observe the wolves living at the WWC and give vital insight to those scientists researching the natural world. Without this insight, researchers would not be able to understand wolves without removing them from their natural environment. Of further benefit, pups born there won’t lose their natural wariness of people and will still be fit for reintroduction to the wild when they grow up. The center has four breeding pairs of wolves, two pairs of Mexican Gray wolves and two pairs of Red wolves.

The most recent litter of Mexican Gray wolves was born to F749 and M740. Their union produced eight pups. This particular pair of wolves has the lowest inbreeding coefficient of any captive breeding pair of Mexican Gray wolves used in the national Species Survival Plan. Their genetic diversity makes F749 and M740 an especially valuable breeding pair. Red wolves F1397 and M1483 are believed to have mated and may produce a litter soon.

The conservation efforts occurring at the WWC are only a small fraction of the wolf species conservation efforts going on all over the world. Wolves have been hunted nearly to extinction in most countries where they’re indigenous. By the 1930s, the gray wolf in the United States was driven to the brink of extinction. In 1980, there were only about 70 red wolves left in the country. The 1973 Endangered Species Act gave wolves in the U.S. special protected status, and populations have slowly been improving. Recently, gray wolves have been removed from the endangered species list, though a federal judge has ordered them restored to protected status.

In Africa, the Ethiopian wolf also flirts with extinction. Only about 500 specimens remain in north and central Ethiopia. Conservationists worry that a single outbreak of contagious disease could wipe out the remainder of the world’s population of Ethiopian wolves. British scientists hope a vaccine could protect them.

While wolves struggle to hang on in many parts of the world, in others they are too numerous. The Romanian government struggles with the logistics of preserving Europe’s largest Eurasian gray wolf population. The nation boasts about 2,500 wild wolves, but the population faces problems of its own. There are so many wolf packs now living in Romanian forests that they are crowding each other out, and fighting over territory. The wolves sometimes kill livestock, which poses a real economic threat in a nation where the average income is about $150 per month. The wolves draw tourists, and locals want to protect them, but the logistics of population control on public, private and protected land remain complex.

While the big bad wolf is a figure of horror from children’s tales, they are a natural part of the ecosystem. As a predator, wolves perform a useful function of preventing overpopulation of some species and strengthening  herds by culling the weak. Even in North America, their important contribution has been recognized and is the impetus behind wolf breeding and reintroduction projects. Protecting and nurturing the wolf makes for a healthier and more diverse ecosystem in the long term.

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