Jean Ossorio is a retired school teacher who has spent over 400 nights camped in the Mexican gray wolf recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico, looking and listening for lobos. She and her husband Peter live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and are committed advocates for Mexican gray wolf recovery.
Thirty years after the last few Mexican gray wolves roamed the southwestern United States borderlands, a handful of intrepid, captive born lobos took tentative steps from their pens into a silent, snowy forest in eastern Arizona. The 11 wolves in three family groups released on March 29, 1998, had been reduced to only five by October, when Peter and I made an exploratory trip through parts of Arizona’s new wolf country. Two wolves had been shot, three removed to captivity, and one had gone missing after losing her collar. As we ate breakfast in a café in Alpine, Arizona, we were saddened to read in the paper that yet another wolf had been found shot to death while we traveled.
It became clear to us on our lobo tour that the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area was no Lamar Valley. Large vistas were few and far between, paved roads non-existent, and no wolf project employees hung out in strategic locations with spotting scopes, poised to show tourists the reintroduced wolves. We saw no wolves on that first trip, but a year later a brief, tantalizing glimpse of the Hawk’s Nest alpha male among the ponderosas near Campbell Blue Creek was enough to hook us on camping in wolf country.
By the fall of 2000, the number of wolves in the wild had climbed to more than 20. After an early season snowstorm caused us to abandon plans to backpack in the Bear Wallow Wilderness, we set up our tiny tent under a tarp at the edge of snow covered Double Cienega. (The word cienega is southwestern Spanish for a wet meadow.) Large canine tracks and an enormous pile of scat full of elk hair among the trees were convincing evidence that the Francisco Pack was in the vicinity. As we crawled into our sleeping bags in the gathering gloom, a loud, deep howl rang out, followed by more howling throughout the night.
After a day of exploring the snowy woods and meadows, we spent a second night stuffed into our crowded shelter. The following morning, as I stirred a pan of corned beef hash on the camp stove, I scanned the edge of the cienega. There, at the edge of the trees, no more than 150 meters away, were seven wolves, three adult sized, with bright orange radio collars, and four smaller, half-grown pups without collars. Despite the delicious odors, the wolves did not approach, but rather retreated into the trees. The pack emerged again at a greater distance and worked their way across the meadow, the three adults moving at a dignified, purposeful pace, while the four pups wrestled and rolled in the snow like a litter of domestic puppies at play.
In 2001 we began what has become a tradition: a midwinter wolf country camping trip. Although temperatures as low as zero, blowing snow, and blustery winds make tent camping a challenge, listening to wolf howls from inside our cozy sleeping bags on a cold, moonless night brings a feeling of connection to nature that is seldom achieved in our urbanized, wired society.
Since those first outings in Arizona, I have spent a minimum of 418 nights tent camping among lobos, sometimes with Peter, sometimes with other women, and occasionally alone, with nobody but wolves, elk, owls, and wind for company. As of last April, when we watched the two members of the newly named Bear Wallow Pack stroll across Double Cienega, I’ve observed at least 45 lobos in the wild.
Sadly, I’m concerned that opportunities to camp with the lobos may be on the wane. The end of year count of Mexican gray wolves reached a high of 110 at the end of 2014. This year, the count had slipped to 97. Pup survival was down and illegal killings on the rise. Meanwhile, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been dragging its feet on releasing adequate numbers of new wolves to address issues of low genetic diversity and increasing inbreeding depression in the wild population. It’s long past time for the USFWS to use its authority to release wolves into new habitat in both Arizona and New Mexico. I want a new generation of lobo supporters to know the unmatched thrill of hearing and seeing wild wolves on their own home turf. We’ve come too far to watch the lobo slowly slide into extinction.
Prevent This Wolf Extinction
It's not too late. But it will be, unless action is taken right away. Ask Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to release more captive lobos into the wild so these iconic predators have a fighting chance to survive.