El Lobo, part 3: surrounded by ghosts

In June of this year, I headed back to lobo (Mexican wolf) country in northern Arizona.  I drove up to a remote camping area near Escudilla Mountain, arriving on a cloudy and windy  afternoon.  On the way up to the camp site, I passed several elk cows with small calves at their heels.  I set up camp in a small patch of woods, a surviving remnant of the huge wildfires that have plagued (or rejuvenated, depending on your point of view) the area over the last couple of decades.  Scars of the fires were visible from camp – skeletons of pines and firs, and dead aspens with thickets of saplings rising 10-15 feet from their base.

After setting up camp (since I’m sleeping in my car, that means only setting up a table and chair, and camp stove), Shadow and I took a quick exploration of the neighborhood and returned to camp for dinner.  Just as I was cleaning up, I heard some loud crashing in as aspen thicket just north of camp.  I ushered Shadow into the car, as I listened carefully to try to figure out what was going on.  I heard an elk bark and thrashing of vegetation, then a growly sound that turned into what sounded like a death rattle.  More crashing through the aspens, and I could see the tall trunks of the dead aspens waving as something large ran off into the distance.  Then quiet.  I waited for more clues to what just happened, while wondering if I should move my camp.  I was pretty sure an elk calf just died, not 20 yards away.  This was wild country, full of bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves, all capable of killing an elk calf.  But if the calf was killed by a predator, they weren’t revealing their identity, and I wasn’t about to crawl into the thicket to get more information.  At least not yet.

My camp was in the territory of the Elk Horn  pack, which had claimed this area as their home for the last several years.  The pack obtained some notoriety this spring, when two lobo pups born at the Brookfield Zoo were cross-fostered into the litter of pups born to the Elk Horn pack.  The states involved in Mexican Wolf management have been fighting the release of more wolves into the wild, so adding captive-born pups to wild litters is one way to increase the critically low genetic diversity.  This experiment was first tried in 2014, and appears to have been successful.  Apparently, mama wolves can’t count, so they accept the additional pups as their own (the biologists carefully smear the scent of the two litters together, so they all smell similar).   The entire population of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico struggles to top 100, victims of poaching, over-management, inbreeding and accidents, so its very important to maximize the genetic diversity of the wild population.

All remained quiet in the direction of the aspen thicket, so I decided not to move camp.  Shadow and I took another walk – in the opposite direction – as the sun set, and had only gone a few yards, when we almost ran into a lone elk cow.  I repeatedly saw what looked like the same cow over the next few days, and I suspect this was the calves mother.   She didn’t seem to want to leave the area.

An elk cow near camp.
An elk cow near camp.

The night stayed cloudy and windy, and morning dawned cloudy and breezy.  It drizzled off and on, which gave me an excuse to crawl into my sleeping bag and catch up on some much needed sleep.   Toward evening, I watched a herd of elk move into the meadow to the west of camp, then noticed a canine trotting along through the meadow.  I ran and got my binoculars, and just before I could raise them to my eyes, watched the canine pounce on a rodent.  I’ve seen coyotes do that a lot, so I was expecting to see a coyote when I got a better look.  But it wasn’t a coyote – it was too bulky and too dark.  It was a lobo!  I ran and got my camera, and got a few shots of it before it trotted off into the trees.

A distant look at an unmarked lobo
A distant look at an unmarked lobo.


One last look before it disappears into the skeleton forest
One last look before it disappears into the skeleton forest.


The sky started to turn pink after the lobo disappeared, leaving us with a beautiful sunset.

Sunset near Escudilla Mountain
Sunset near Escudilla Mountain. A dozen or so elk graze on the left side of the meadow.

It started to rain as the color faded from the sky, so Shadow and I retreated to my camper.  It was too wet to set up the microphones, and sure enough, I was awakened at 9:30 pm by a wolf howling not too far away.  It was joined by a higher voice, which sounded like a pup.   Sleep was intermittent, as I listened for more wolf howls, through the light rain and wind in the trees.  Finally, around 3:45 am the rain seemed to have moved off, so I set up the microphones.  I had no sooner crawled back in my camper and settled myself into my sleeping bag than I heard distant howls.  I turned on the recorder, and promptly fell asleep.  Some birds calling close by woke me up about an hour later.  I continued to record for another half hour or so, then shut down the recorder and climbed out of the camper into another cloudy and breezy dawn.  When I checked the recording later, I was pleased to discover the wolves had been calling back and forth for close to an hour.  Unfortunately, the wind in the aspens just about swamped the distant wolf howls, but they are there (listen with headphones):

As the morning progressed, the wind picked up and the clouds lowered.  Rather than spend the day in a wet camp, I decided to check out another area of wolf country that I hadn’t been to before – the Blue River.  But before I left, I had to check out what happened to the elk calf on the first day.  A turkey vulture had been parked in a dead aspen over the thicket since yesterday afternoon, confirming my suspicion.  I grabbed my bear spray and my camera, put Shadow in the car, and slowly moved toward the thicket, talking loudly so I didn’t surprise anything.  I circled the thicket, and caught the rank odor of something dead, and found a short trail of compressed grass.  But I found no other sign outside the thicket – no blood, no fur, no tracks.  I lost my nerve at the idea of actually crawling into the thicket, so I retreated and headed back to camp, never solving the mystery of what happened.  But the vulture didn’t appear to be willing to go into the thicket either.

Some of the initial releases of wolves in 1998 occurred near the Blue River.  The first pack, the Campbell Blue pack, did not fare well, with some members shot, and a few captured and removed for moving out of the area where they were released or for interacting too much with people and dogs.  Currently, there is no Campbell Blue pack, but it’s possible that dispersing wolves use the area.  So I didn’t have high expectations of hearing or seeing wolves along the Blue River, just wanted to see the country.  The road that follows the river into the Blue Range Primitive Area snakes through some gorgeous red rock country and along a lovely stream lined with cottonwoods and willows.

Camp along the Blue River
Camp along the Blue River.

There are a few private cattle ranches along the river; they use the surrounding national forest for grazing their cattle during much of the year.  It’s almost understandable that these ranchers, with their homesteads hours away from the nearest grocery store, might feel a little miffed when wolves were dumped in their backyard.  After all, they’d helped eradicate the cow-eaters more than 80 years ago.  But rather than asking these ranchers to accept a new challenge to the way they’d been doing things, maybe some other options should have been presented.  These remote ranches would make great guest ranches, with clientele paying good money for the beauty and the chance to hear or see wolves (and bears and mountain lions and all the other wildlife).  Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep these few ranchers in the business of running cattle on land that doesn’t deserve it, buy out the allotments and provide monetary support for the ranchers to change their business.  Most ranchers I’ve met are pretty stubborn ol’ codgers, so I doubt they would be very interested in this plan, but maybe it’s at least worth thinking about.

The wind persisted through the night and next day.  Crickets and owls called through the night, and the birds woke me up with a nice dawn chorus.  But I didn’t hear any wolves or coyotes.  Maybe next time.

Photo of Mexican grey wolf and pup by Bob Haarmans, via Flickr under Creative Commons 2 license.

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