A star has died.
Estrella, the female Mexican wolf born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in 1997, was found shot to death in western New Mexico in early December. Whether the shooter mistook the target for a coyote probably will never be known.
At 13, Estrella (it means “Star” in Spanish) “was pretty old and not getting around very well” just weeks before her death, said Maggie Dwire, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque. Two years earlier Estrella had been supplanted as the alpha female of a pack in Arizona and had joined a pack in New Mexico.
The circumstances of Estrella’s demise shouldn’t obscure how she lived up to her name as a breeding female in the federal program to protect the endangered subspecies, which has only 40-60 wild members now.
“In all honesty, she’s contributed so much,” said Dwire, noting that during her life Estrella gave birth to 22 pups and at least nine of them went on to become parents.
“If we had a thousand like her we’d be done,” Dwire said. “She was a very strong alpha female.”
Estrella and her mate were taken from the zoo and taken to the Sevielleta Reserve south of Albuquerque, where she gave birth to four pups in May 2002.
The plan, fraught with uncertainty, was to take the adults and pups and reintroduce them to the wild in the high country along the border between New Mexico and Arizona. Researchers can’t know for sure whether adults raised in captivity will do well in the wild, and the danger from guys in pickups with rifles is hard to underestimate.
But Estrella and her mate proved to be good providers. She was an expert den digger, routinely digging a narrow tunnel that would have an elbow in it.
The Mexican wolf population has been struggling of late, but this year’s breeding season is just beginning and Dwire said “I think things are looking optimistic for growth in the next couple of years.”
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is still making its contributions to the Mexican wolf. In November a female named Weeko arrived. Now she has been paired (see my blog) with a male, Masadi.
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“We’re hoping that she and Masadi will breed and have pups,” said zoo spokeswoman Katie Borremans.
It’s too early to say whether the family would be suitable for reintroduction. No doubt, though, there are still some who don’t want to see that happen.
Academics who inhabit conservative think tanks fret about wolves occasionally killing livestock, but those who venture into the West’s wild country know there’s still a lot of it. There are still some places where wolves can roam, and we should make sure this part of the West’s legacy is preserved.
Estrella gave it everything she had.