February 10, 2016
Moments after a Cheyenne Mountain Zoo keeper set out a couple clumps of ground meat, LightHawk emerged from a small snow shelter nestled next to a pine tree.
The zoo's newest edition sniffed around for a few minutes Wednesday morning then made her way to the food, nibbling the morsels as male wolf Leopold kept his distance. Leopold eventually took a bite, then retreated back up the snow-covered hill in the Mexican gray wolf exhibit.
Kristen Cox, an animal keeper at the zoo for the last decade, said the pair were "doing real well, actually" after their introduction less than a day before.
LightHawk was flown from Scottsdale, Ariz., on Tuesday to fill the void left when her sister, Weeko, died of cancer in January. She was named for LightHawk Conservation Flying, the volunteer organization that brought her to Colorado Springs.
LightHawk was brought to Cheyenne Mountain to pair with Leopold in a last-ditch effort to continue their genetic lines. According to the Mexican Gray Wolf Species Survival Plan, which tracks genetic lines of wolves in human care, both Leopold and the new female have under-represented genes in the remaining wolf population.
Zoo officials hurried to have the wolves meet on Tuesday as the short Mexican gray wolf breeding season ends on March 5. The animals were allowed to meet while separated by a fence for a little more than an hour before keepers opened a gate for a more intimate introduction.
"Leopold was super excited," she said, noting that the wolves "stood 15 to 20 feet apart, staring at each other" for about 45 minutes before Leopold touched his snout to LightHawk's.
"She growled. And then he backed off," Cox said.
She said the window for the pair to breed reaches it peak right on Valentine's Day. Cox and Animal Care Manager Dina Bredahl each said it's a "long shot" that the two 11-year-olds will produce pups.
Mexican gray wolves have been on the endangered species list since 1976. According to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, the first captive-bred wolves were released into parts of New Mexico and Arizona in 1998. The latest count, completed at the end of 2014, estimate that at least 110 Mexican gray wolves roam a 6,000-square-mile area near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Cox said this year might be the last chance for LightHawk and Leopold to have a litter. She said Mexican gray wolves typically live to be about 15 years old, but lose fertility as they get older.
"We have high hopes, but we're cautiously optimistic at the same time," she said.
Even if the wolves are unsuccessful at having pups, the zoo will benefit having LightHawk as a companion to Leopold. Cox said the pair will act as ambassadors and educators to zoo visitors.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is also active in re-population programs for the black-footed ferret and the Wyoming toad. Jeff Baughman, the zoo's lead conservation keeper, said that Cheyenne Mountain ferrets are released every October at locations all over the West from Canada to Mexico. And toads and tadpoles are introduced into the wild near Laramie, Wyo., each June.
Black-footed ferrets have been endangered since 1967 and were considered extinct in 1980. In 1981, a dead ferret was found by a dog in Wyoming and the recovery effort was born. The Wyoming toad has been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species list since 1984.
Gazette reporter Kaitlin Durbin contributed to this report.