February 18th, 2018, was a day I will always remember. It was the first time I got lucky enough to see my favorite animal, the Gray Wolf, in the wild. I was on a birding trip with my friends Janet Witzeman and Josh Wallestad. Josh, Janet, and I were driving through a snow storm en route to seeing a Boreal Owl that someone had found roadside in the famous Sax-Sim Bog. As we were closing in on owl and growing in our anxiety levels, something unexpected happened. While I didn't think anything could possibly top the Boreal Owl or come close to matching the owl's excitement, the exact opposite happened. A wolf was walking across the road ahead of us and it stood out among all of the rapid snowflakes that were coming down everywhere. At first I thought it was just an animal of some sort, and I'll never forget Josh saying, "No, that's a wolf!". The wolf gave us a decent look to the naked eyes as I started to brake the car. As soon as Janet handed me my binoculars and when I started to get into the motion of lifting them up, the wolf trotted off into the woods, not to be seen again. He seemingly emerged out of the snowstorm, and went back into it just as quickly. The sighting fulfilled a life long dream of mine of seeing a wolf, and I found myself wishing over and over that I had a picture to go along with it. As we looked at the Boreal Owl minutes later, it took me awhile to focus on the Boreal Owl. Not because there was an intense snow storm taking place, but because I had just seen my first wolf, the one animal I would choose over such an owl.
I've thought about that Gray Wolf a lot ever since I was lucky enough to see it. Since my first sighting, I've been wanting another. I even had thoughts about going to Yellowstone National Park to look for wolves there this summer, but that plan would need more preparation for another time. My recent vacation was a hardcore birding trip to Greenlee County, Arizona. Greenlee County is the most under-birded county in the history of Arizona ornithology, and I decided to spend six days in it, covering it from north to south.
The first three days of my trip, July 3rd through July 5th, I would spend in the Hannagan Meadow area. Hannagan Meadow is a beautiful place, and is an area that is in range of the Mexican Gray Wolf. The Mexican Gray Wolf is indeed, a wolf! And a wolf that lives in Arizona. It's quite amazing actually. Mexican Gray Wolves are the smallest subspecies of Gray Wolves and are a lot smaller than their northern relatives. At most, a Mexican Gray Wolf will weigh roughly 85 pounds, while a northern Gray Wolf can get above 150 pounds. Mexican Gray Wolves are critically endangered. After roaming the southwest throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico, Mexican Gray Wolves, who were commonly called "Lobos", were hunted and killed to the brief of extinction. The last known wolf died in the 1970's and before that, conservation efforts finally kicked in. After captive breeding and decision making, it was then decided that Mexican Wolves would be re-introduced into the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico again after a long absence. In 1998, the recovery program began when 11 wolves were re-introduced into the Blue Range Primitive Area of east-central Arizona. I can still remember getting a poster as a kid of that first wolf to celebrate the event. That wolf truly had the look of freedom in it's face. Twenty years later, the program has had limited but yet a decent amount of success. Even though all of this time I've known about Mexican Wolves living in east-central Arizona and even though I've seen the animal at the Phoenix Zoo many times, it's never really sank in to me that we actually have wild wolves in Arizona!
My recent Greenlee County trip was all about birds from the start. At least that's what I thought it was going to be. From day 1 of the trip, I noticed this really awesome valley that was green, full of surrounding conifers and aspens, and it had some small open meadows. As I drove by it and glanced harder, I realized it had a road going down the valley and it turned out the road paralleled a creek called Foote Creek. And that road branched right off of the Highway 191 that I was driving on. I decided to hike it the second day, and I was impressed because it was as awesome as it looked by driving by hiking it on foot. It held appropriate habitat for my biggest target bird of the trip, the Dusky Grouse. Aside from that hike, I thought Foote Creek would be the perfect place to see a variety of wildlife, especially when driving by it and looking down on it from Highway 191 in the open meadowy spot. Whenever I would drive by it, I would glance at it carefully..
I was on my third day of the trip on July 5th, 2018. The time was great, and a lot of it was spent birding in high coniferous/aspen forest above 9000' in elevation for birds such as Dusky Grouse and Canada Jay. Because a lot of the region suffered from a devastating wildfire in 2011, it has made those species harder to find. I was coming back to Hannagan Meadow on that day to spend the last three hours birding in that habitat after birding the day away at the Blue and Black Rivers nearby. As I made my way back towards Hannagan Meadow, I made a few stops. One was to get in contact with my Dad and let him know where I was going to be on the coming days for my trip (Greenlee is a remote wilderness county for the most part!). The other was a one minute stop on Highway 191 to wait for a guy to collect tail feathers off of a road killed Wild Turkey that had been recently hit. I've thought about it a lot, if I didn't make those two stops I may have missed what was next. Timing can be perfect in life, or it can be awful. This time I would be on the perfect end of it. As I passed by Foote Creek and glanced down into it on that east side of Highway 191, I saw a large canid standing in the meadow and near the entrance to Foote Creek. And it didn't strike me as a Coyote...
As I looked closer, it gave me a wolf kinda vibe..
I slammed on the breaks of my truck and reversed. I grabbed my binoculars and looked at the animal, who was also looking at me. Good grief, it was a Mexican Gray Wolf!
At this point, what stood between my truck and the open meadow area that the wolf was in were some conifers that made it challenging to get clear photographs. I backed up a few feet to where I had more of an open look. The Wolf was curious for about ten seconds, and then it trotted off a few feet to where there were conifers blocking my few. What a smart animal...
Once again, I put my truck in reverse and backed it up a few feet to get past the conifers that were blocking me. This time, the wolf was closer and we stared at each other for a little while longer before it started to trot away in the opposite direction. What a beautiful animal.
Right before it started to trot off, I noticed a second wolf behind it!
Wolves are intelligent and have high communication signals with each other. The second wolf didn't seem too concerned about me, but once the first signaled that they should bail, it listened and trotted off too.
As I was looking with my eyes and snapping pictures quickly and looking through the viewfinder of my camera, I could see that this second wolf has a radio collar! Fanfreakingtastic!
As the conifers blocked my view of the wolves again, I jumped out of the truck and continued to watch them as they trotted up into a heavily timbered ravine above and on the west side of Foote Creek. I focused on them with my binoculars more this time than trying to get photos. Here is the one photo I got of this sequence, can you find the wolf?
With some branch cracking sounds and a few more glimpses, I wouldn't see the wolves again. I walked down into Foote Creek and walked where they had walked hoping to find a nice track print without any luck. I also thought about following the wolves further to see if I could see them again, but I thought what I had was as good as it could get, and I let the wolves be. A few more times throughout the remainder of that day, I did drive up and down that area of Hannagan Meadow with my eyes open. When I found this Coyote, it made me jump for the first second before I realized it was a Coyote. I couldn't help but think of the sound of a booing crowd when I realized it.
When driving around the White Mountains of Arizona, people will notice these signs up about the Mexican Gray Wolves and their re-introduction. For the first time it really made sense to me, ARIZONA HAS WILD WOLVES!!! How epic is that.
I had to leave the White Mountain region early the next morning to complete birding the southern half of Greenlee County for the trip's remaining three days. Even though I didn't get Dusky Grouse or Canada Jay, the Wolves were as good as it could ever get, my favorite animal, better than any bird could possibly be, and a great way to leave the White Mountains..
After posting my wolf pictures on Facebook social media, I had my friend Melissa contact me. Melissa had worked on Mexican Gray Wolf stuff before in the White Mountains with wolf biologist, Genevieve. She showed the wolf pictures to her and Genevieve already knew which wolf the radio collared one was and wanted to talk to me about my sighting.
I got a call from Genevieve and she asked me about my sighting, and I told her everything. I was immediately informed about how rare it is to have a sighting like I had. She thanked me and I asked her more about the radio collared wolf. It turns out the wolf radio collared is named and numbered 1477. He was born in a pack called the Elk Horn Pack, who lives in the Escudilla Mountain area. When 1477 was a year old, Genevieve put that radio collar on him and the radio collar stands out that she was able to instantly recognize which wolf it was. She told me that 1477 dispersed not long after that from his birth family, the Elk Horn Pack and went further south. 1477 then met the un-collared wolf who I first saw. The un-collared wolf, I guess I'll call her Naomi, has been traveling with and paired with 1477 for some time. 1477 and Naomi have been together long enough and Genevieve told me they've shown behavior that they have a den in place. Because of this, these two wolves have reached pack status, and will be given the name the Eagle Creek Pack. I think it's epic that Naomi hasn't been touched by human hands, and I'm glad that she was the first wolf that I saw out of the two.
Something really cool that Genevieve explained to me was that from the radio collar of 1477 and the other wolves that they have collared, that daily signals are sent to their computers about the whereabouts of each radio collared wolf. I asked her if she could look up July 5th, 2018, the day of my sighting. She looked it up and said, "oh yeah! Yep. He (1477) was throughout Hannagan Meadow that day and on both sides of Highway 191". I was blown away. Genevieve also told me that they have close to 75 wolves radio collared in Arizona and New Mexico.
For more information on the Mexican Gray Wolves of Arizona, Arizona Game and Fish Department has an excellent source of information on their website. I'll include a link here. Go down to monthly reports to see information on the packs, including information on my encountered radio collared wolf, #1477.
To me, this sighting is the best I've had with wildlife, it beats everything else. Ever since I've been a little kid, wolves have been my favorite animal. To have two sightings in a year has certainly been epic!