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She heard the call of the wolves

Mexican wolves are hated, feared, and imperiled. Jean Ossorio, 75, has seen more of them than almost anyone.

By Tracy Staedter

A devoured deer, dog-like paw prints in the mud, and fresh deposits of scat, too large to be coyote. Wolves. Jean Ossorio, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband Peter, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, were on the right trail.

It was the fall of 1999 and they were hiking through a remote part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, where wolves hadn’t roamed in significant numbers for nearly 100 years. Most had been trapped, poisoned, shot, or burned alive in their dens in the early 20th century as part of an eradication effort led by the U.S. government. It didn’t take long for the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), a local species nicknamed “el lobo,” to go extinct in the wild. By 1976, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had put it on the Endangered Species list.

Jean and Peter, in their 50s at the time, still hoped to glimpse one. They knew about the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, a collaboration between the United States and Mexico to save the species. Seven wolves had been enlisted in a program in the early 1980s and mid-1990s to breed pups and start new lines.

By 1998, 148 wolves had been reared, and the first 11 had been released into Arizona, near the very spot where Jean and Peter hiked. Four of those reintroduced wolves had been illegally shot dead within less than a year.

“We wanted to see them while there were still a few out there,” Jean told me.

Since the recovery program began, the wolves have been at the center of a roiling controversy between people who want to save the animal from extinction and those who want it eliminated. Although the causes of these deaths are still under investigation, humans have been disproportionately implicated in the past. Between 1998 and 2017, 150 Mexican wolves died, 82 of them killed illegally, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Some were shot with a firearm or arrow or died in a trap. In 2015, one rancher trapped a 10-month old Mexican wolf pup and bludgeoned it to death with a shovel. In 2018, 17 wolves in the recovery area were found dead, the most in any single year since the reintroduction began.

Among a cohort of scientists and advocates, the urge to protect wolves is equally fierce. And for some of them, like the Ossorios, wolf encounters take on a magical quality, like a physical manifestation of a wilder human past. On that autumn afternoon in 1999, Jean and Peter followed a sloping trail down toward Campbell Blue Creek. Suddenly, from the south bank, came two woeful bellows. Jean scanned the forest and saw a Mexican wolf peering at her from behind a tree about 150 yards up a hill.

He was AM131 — AM for Adult Male, as labeled by Fish and Wildlife. At about 85 pounds, he was large for a male. He’d been paired with the female AF486, and together they’d had three pups to form what scientists dubbed the Hawk’s Nest pack. He was alone, perhaps howling for his mate. In a moment, he was gone, Peter having turned just in time to catch a blur of brownish-gray fur.

Friend or foe

That brief encounter, 20 years ago, launched a new phase in the Ossorios’ lives. They signed up for Fish and Wildlife Service status updates on the Mexican wolf recovery activities. They took wildlife tracking classes. They joined forces with advocacy groups to rally for pro-wolf legislation and push back on misinformation. They also returned over and over again to camp in Mexican wolf territory. Jean, now 75, has logged the most nights — 493, as of this writing (Peter has logged 410). Without the use of helicopters, traps, and the radio telemetry technology that scientists use to monitor pack members, Jean has recorded 56 sightings of the rare and endangered wolves — probably more, one Fish and Wildlife field coordinator told me, than any other member of the public.

I first heard of Jean in the spring of 2016, while reporting on a potential story about Mexican wolves for Seeker magazine. Several experts — from Fish and Wildlife, the Wolf Conservation Center in New York, the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project — spoke of Jean with some awe and told me to call her. “She’s seen more Mexican wolves than I have,” said wildlife biologist Dave Parsons, who led Fish and Wildlife’s effort to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf between 1990 and 1999.

I began to conjure an image of Jean as a wizened woman full of fearless serenity. Mystical, perhaps. A wolf whisperer. But when I finally got her on the phone, I found she was merely mortal, a staunch, talkative woman with a deep love of nature and a strong desire for justice. “I’ve always been drawn to the underdog, so I suppose that’s one reason I feel a particular attachment to wolves and coyotes. They’ve been heavily persecuted for generations,” she said.

“This is the stuff of which soap operas are made.”

Jean had her first wolf encounter at age 30, when she and her parents visited a farm where wolves and a coyote were being kept under permit by wildlife artist Richard Philip Grossenheider. Jean came face-to-face with several North American gray wolves and held a coyote pup in her arms. “I became imprinted on canids,” she said.

At first, she said, she fixated on the positive stereotypes: that wolves mated for life, had an ideal family life, enlisted yearlings to help babysit the pups. But after she began following the monthly updates from the Fish and Wildlife Service, she formed a different picture.

The original Rim Pack, for instance — made of AM992 and AF858, which she and Peter once saw traveling together in January 2006 — had two pups together. But by the end of that year, the female and her offspring had left AM992 and were traveling with his brother, AM991. In April 2007, AM991 was found dead. In the meantime, AM992 was in to New Mexico, where he had joined another female to form the Dark Canyon Pack. “This is the stuff of which soap operas are made,” Jean said.

Photo by Andy Bochman
Clockwise from top left, Peter and Jean Ossorio with reporter Tracy Staedter and the Ossorios’ dog, Smokey.

By 2016, Jean’s love for the wolves had become something of a legend. So when she suggested that my partner Andy and I join her and Peter in wolf country, we jumped at the chance. We met them in late October 2016 at the Alpine Grill & Still in Alpine, Arizona, 200 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Jean was about as tall as me, five foot nine, with graying hair and round glasses. Stories poured from her like a river, meandering and with insistent forwardness. Peter, large and affable, nodded in agreement to her narratives, every now and then adding a comment or affirming her recollection.

Jean had chosen this restaurant because the owners were “wolf-friendly.” Not everyone was. Although wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, some locals were afraid for their safety. Others feared for their livestock. In a 1996 environmental impact statement, Fish and Wildlife predicted that a population of 100 wolves would kill between one and 34 cattle per year. Ranchers who hadn’t had to deal with wolves for a century were exasperated, sometimes furious. Jean recalled a man — “one fellow,” she called him, in her typical pattern of speech — at a public hearing about the wolves back in March 2000. He was yelling at Wendy Brown, the acting Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, jabbing his finger in her direction to punctuate his words. “What are you going to do,” he shouted, “when one of YOUR wolves kills a child? Miss.” [jab] “Wendy.” [jab] “Brown.” [jab]

Fear and dead livestock were only part of the picture, Craig Miller, who works for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, once told me. In the presence of wolves, cattle become stressed. They lose weight and their reproduction levels drop. “If you have a large operation with 1,000 cows, the stress impact on those cattle reduces weight by 10 percent. Multiply that by market value and the numbers add up,” he said.

Wolf songs

Later at the campsite, we set up our tents and watched the sky drain indigo in the west. Jean warmed soup over a camp stove and we sat in the dark listening to her wolf stories. There was the time Jean and Peter saw three wolves waltzing past horses grazing in a field, completely ignoring them. The time they served as pen sitters for a mated pair of wolves about to be released into the wild. The morning they spotted the entire Francisco Pack after a snowfall in October 2000.

“I was stirring a pan of corned beef hash on the stove, and all of a sudden, I looked up and said — and I think these were my actual words, you know, sort of sotto voce — ‘Peter they’re here.’” The mated pair, a yearling female and four pups about five or six months old, were walking across a meadow, little ones rolling in the snow like puppies.

A few years into their camping habits, Jean began going out alone. “I know of quite a few women who have become more adventurous as they’ve aged,” she said. But if it weren’t for wolves, she may never have stepped out of her comfort zone. “The discomfort was never due to the presence of wolves or bears, or even mountain lions, but rather the possibility of encounters with unpleasant or hostile humans,” she said.

One morning in 2004, she thought she was on the verge of such an encounter. She was packing up her car when a man driving an unmarked pickup truck pulled up beside her site. He was dressed in plain clothes and had an antenna on the truck.

“Seen any wolves?” he hollered at Jean.

“I’m thinking, ‘Who the hell wants to know?’” she told us. “The problem was I’d already stuck the pistol in the car.” She glanced at her car, covered in conservation stickers, including one that read, Welcome Home Mexican Wolves.

No, she hadn’t seen any, she told him. That’s when he identified himself as the brand-new law enforcement officer for Fish and Wildlife. Jean felt relief. Distant howling she’d heard that morning became louder and the officer used his antenna to confirm the location of the wolves, about a mile away. For two hours Jean and her new friend listened to the wolves. “He was enchanted, too.”

Andy and I crawled into our tent that night with visions of wolves. We hadn’t yet fallen asleep when, from under the dark dome of our tent, we heard the coyotes start up with their high-pitched barks and yowling. They were surprisingly close, 50 yards away at most, on the other side of the hill. A flash of anxiety passed through my chest. But then the world grew quiet, and soon another sound rose up from the trees, this one more distant than the coyotes, more dissonant.

“They’re here,” I whispered. Their melody rose out of the treetops, as languid as smoke, a communal song meant to unite the pack. To us it sounded like longing for the past.

Click to listen to the howls of a Mexican wolf

Earlier in the evening, Jean, who used to play the piano and the cello, had described wolf howls as legato, Italian for “tied together.” In sheet music, legato describes musical notes that should be played smoothly connected. Jean told us that wolf songs often included minor thirds that descended in pitch, which is what made them sound so mournful. Lying there in the dark, I understood what she meant. For several minutes, the chorus blended and diverged, and then all was silent.

We woke excited for more, but Jean tempered our anticipation. There were plenty of times, she said, that they’d come into the forest and heard nothing. It had been 18 months since they’d seen a wolf. “Those howls may have been the highlight of your trip,” she said.

If we had been anti-wolf, we could have easily scared them off. If we had rifles, we could have killed them.

After breakfast, we walked in the direction of the howls, toward a meadow nicknamed the “Boneyard.” This was high country, where ponderosa pines waded knee-deep in bunch grasses. We chatted casually until Jean interrupted herself and said she saw something move in the distance. The wheat-colored meadow was hundreds of yards away. She got out her binoculars and scanned the area. 

We moved with caution to a bend in the trail that offered a wide-open view. Indeed, they were Mexican wolves. Andy and I shared a wide-eyed glance. The last time I’d seen a wolf was in a zoo. But here they were, wild and sprawled in the grass, unaware of our exhilaration so many yards away. 

It was the Hoodoo Pack, which consisted of a collared alpha male, AM1290, his mate, AF1333, and their three offspring: a young adult, m1441, and two female pups, fp1549 and fp1550. Their fur — a mix of brown, tan, cream, and gray — merged with the meadow, making them difficult to spot. They weren’t doing anything noticeably wolf-like, like bringing down an elk, or snarling, or fighting over a carcass. In fact, they looked more like dogs out there. Sometimes one would sit on his haunches as if to guard, and then lay down again. Once, a wolf trotted into the forest’s edge and then later trotted back. It was their life, both mundane and remarkable, unmistakably vulnerable. Had we been different humans, anti-wolf ones, we could have easily scared them off. If we had rifles, we could have killed them. I couldn’t help but feel humanity’s deep responsibility for nature.

At the time, the official count of Mexican wolves living in Arizona and New Mexico stood at 97. It wasn’t a healthy number. Although the original recovery program called for Mexican wolf communities in the U.S. to grow to 100 members, the deaths of key individuals early on resulted in a population weak in genetic diversity. As a result, almost all of the Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico today are related to each other, a problem correlated with fewer pups born per litter. Geneticist Richard Fredrickson, a member of the most recent Mexican Wolf Recovery Team, recently calculated that for the population to become genetically healthy, it would need to grow to at least 750 members. But in November 2017, Fish and Wildlife published a revision to the recovery plan, calling for an average of 320 wolves by the year 2043. Conservationists have filed a lawsuit to challenge that number. Lolling in the late morning sun, the Hoodoo Pack didn’t know what they were up against.

After an hour of watching the wolves, we began walking back to camp. Jean told Andy and me that we were extremely lucky, having not only heard the wolves, but also seen them. “You should buy a lottery ticket,” she said. Partway up the trail, I turned to look one last time down into the meadow but could no longer find them.

In the two years since Andy and I camped in wolf country, the Hoodoo Pack has maintained its territory. The young male, m1441, went on to become the alpha male of the Saffel pack. The young female, fp1550, joined with m1571 to form a new pack, the Sierra Blanca. Their sister, fp1549, was found dead in Arizona in March 2017. The mated pair, AM1290 and AF1333, have reared three new pups since then. Today, the wild population in Arizona and New Mexico stands at 114 members. Another 30 or so live in Mexico.

“They are neither the demons of anti-wolf mythology, nor the paragons of domestic virtue of some pro-wolf fairy tales,” Jean told me. “They are animals, closely related to our companion dogs, that display complex and sometimes contradictory behavior patterns. They never fail to amaze.”

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Tracy Staedter is a writer based in Milwaukee.

Illustration by Erica Williams


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