June 10, 2011 2:43 PM
The Endangered Wolf Center located outside of Eureka has been reintroducing Arizona gray wolves back to parts of Arizona since 1998, but now, they’re in trouble from the Wallow fire, which is raging through the dry pine trees in the eastern part of the state.
The center says the blaze that has already turned 600 square miles of wilderness into a smoldering wasteland could be “a serious blow” to wolf reintroduction programs in the area. Regina Mossotti, Director of Animal Care at the Endangered Wolf Center, says that she’s never seen anything like it.
“I don’t think anybody has,” she said. “This is one of the first times I’ve ever seen a fire this big, this strong and this fast.”
But Mossotti remains optimistic that the wolves will make it through.
“We have to trust them that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re gonna follow their instincts. They live in a fire-prone area, they have to be able to adapt to it.”
With only 50 specimens in the wild and a mere 200 in captivity, the lobo, as it’s also called, faces extinction being the most endangered mammal in North America. After decades of wholesale slaughter, largely by ranchers justifiably tired of their livestock being killed off by the wolves, the Center has tried to get the species to rebound in the last decade.
But that effort could be stymied by this wildfire. Two wolf packs are in the fire zone and another is right on the edge, according to the wolves’ tracking collars. Those same collars also show that the wolves are doing fine so far, staying safe despite the inferno around them.
Mossotti stated that wildlife authorities in Arizona couldn’t move in to get the wolves out of the fire, simply because the fires had already grown too intense. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Wildlife Services can’t even take the puppies out of their dens to preserve the future of the species.
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“If you remove the puppies and try to reintroduce them to the pack leader, the pack won’t recognize them as their own and take care of them,” Mossotti said. “So, we just have to trust the pack members to take care of the puppies, move them when they need to, dig the dens deep enough so that the fire doesn’t affect the puppies.”
Mossotti also believes something good can come from the blaze, at least for the wolves.
After a forest fire, vegetation usually rebounds quickly, especially during the growing period. That growth leads to more herbivores, like deer and elk, a wolf’s main prey. The abundance of food could mean fertile grounds for the wolf population to grow.
“Fire is part of the natural environment down there, and it is good for it,” she said. “So, if there is a silver lining, that would be the way I would look at it.”