Did you know that the Mexican gray wolf once roamed throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico? By the mid-1900s, its populations within the United States had been eliminated through hunting and trapping through concerns of their disturbance to cattle and other human-related activities. All that remained of this species was a greatly reduced population in northern Mexico. When the United States passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the Mexican gray wolf was placed on the list.
By the early 1980s, there were less than 200 Mexican gray wolves remaining, almost all of which were in captivity. Biologists began to design a Recovery Plan, a document that is drafted for every endangered species on the Endangered Species list which outlines a plan of action and a proposed budget for helping a species grow in population size and ideally to become delisted.
As part of the Mexican gray wolf Recovery Plan, the government had hoped to return these wolves to parts of their historic range within the United States. Part of the Recovery Plan involved a captive breeding program organized by both Mexican and U.S. government agencies. Some of these captive-bred wolves are now housed at the Lehigh Valley Zoo.
The captive breeding program began in 1982. Media giant Ted Turner became heavily involved in the program. His Ladder Ranch in New Mexico has become one of the sites where captive-bred wolves are first released into near-wild conditions before their final release by the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service onto protected government lands.
By 1998 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with state agencies and people living in the areas around Apache National Forest on the border between Arizona and New Mexico to release the first captive-bred wolves.
Of the 11 wolves released, five were found shot, highlighting some of the tensions that still exist between humans and wolves. Since then, the government and private organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife have worked to ensure any released wolves which appear to be a threat to cattle are removed from the area and any ranchers are financially compensated if wolves actually kill livestock. Today there are approximately 50 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in the United States, some of which were successfully born and raised in the wild.
In order to maintain a healthy population and to ensure that more of the wolves can be returned to parts of their historic range, approximately 40 zoos and captive breeding centers have agreed to be part of the international Mexican gray wolf recovery effort.
We are fortunate that the Lehigh Valley Zoo was one of the zoos chosen to be part of this program. The wolves at the Zoo are 4 years old and are all brothers from the same litter. They came from The Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY.
As outlined on the Zoo’s website, part of the wolf’s maintenance involves preserving their wild behaviors. If you are fortunate enough to be at the Zoo when these wolves are being fed, you will see some of the same behaviors these animals would exhibit in the wild. Not only do these animals connect us to our country’s history, they allow us to be at the forefront of conserving an internationally endangered species right here in the Lehigh Valley.