There is a place for wolves
A conservation center protects two species close to extinction
The debate over the presence of cougars in the lower Hudson Valley can get intense, but there’s no argument that we have wolves.
In fact, there are at least 30 within 25 miles of the Highlands.
The Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem has 34 residents, including 21 Mexican Gray Wolves and 10 Red Wolves; both species are considered critically endangered.
The center is part of a federal recovery and release program that returns wolves to their natural habitat: Mexican Grays in the Southwestern United States and Mexico, and Red Wolves in the American Southeast.
Endangered, the last Mexican gray wolves were found in northern Mexico. The few remaining red wolves were on the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. The tiny populations have become the breeding stock of centers like South Salem.
Both species are kept away from human contact, in large fenced areas inside the 35-acre wooded site, to prepare them for life in the wild.
The Westchester North Centre, established in 1999, also has three ‘ambassador’ wolves – Zephyr, Alawa and Nikai – who were born in captivity and are visible to visitors for educational purposes.
Wolves have been demonized for centuries, but Maggie Howell, the center’s executive director, debunks the myth that the animals are bad guys and aggressive man-eaters.
“Usually wolves aren’t even seen in the wild,” she says. Like most wild animals, “they want to be safe. They are elusive and do not appear in front of people.
A 2018 study published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine found that most human deaths caused by animal encounters are not caused by wild animals like cougars, wolves, bears or sharks, but by farm animals; stings of bees, wasps and hornets; and dog attacks.
Howell also disputes the idea that wolves kill large numbers of cattle and sheep. According to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture, nine times more cattle and sheep die from poor health, extreme weather, calving and theft than from attacks of predators. Compared to wolves, dogs and poison kill five times more cattle and sheep.
Not only are wolves not bad guys, Howell says, but they’re environmentally friendly.
“Wolves play an important ecological role as a key predator,” she says. “They can impact other plant and animal species in an ecosystem. Like everything else in nature, everything is connected.
The best-documented example, she said, was when wolves were reintroduced to the northern part of Yellowstone National Park. “The rejuvenation of the landscape has been remarkable,” she says.
The lesson from Yellowstone is that “we shouldn’t completely remove an animal from its original environment,” Howell says.
Although no predator attacks wolves, they do have competitors. “They will compete with mountain lions, bears and coyotes, but their biggest competition would be other wolves,” Howell explains. “The neighboring peloton could be the competition; it can be a kind of war.
Wolves form close bonds. They hunt together, nap together, love together, and sing together. “It’s all about family,” Howell says. “Probably everything they do helps build those social bonds.”
Their howl, she says, is about long-distance communication — and fun. “If they’re looking for a mate, they might yell ‘Hey, I’m single,'” she says, adding that wolves also mate just for fun, just like humans.
“It’s like we’re sitting around a campfire or going to a concert and we’re all singing at the same time,” she says. “It just feels good.”
So what are you feeding 34 hungry wolves?
Howell says that because wolves will eat almost anything, the menu is “flexible,” but always includes meat. Much of the food is donated by hunters cleaning out their freezers or supermarkets providing food that can no longer be sold.
Howell says the octopus was the craziest menu item and the three wolf ambassadors reacted very differently. “Zephyr and Alawa ate it like they were sipping oysters; it was gone! she remembers. “Nikai wasn’t so sure; he thought it was a toy and kept tossing it in the air.
Something strange happened at the center during the pandemic, although Howell considers it just a coincidence. wolves in general breed in February and March, with litters born in May or early June. The year before the pandemic, 22 puppies were born at the center. But the seasons during COVID haven’t produced any.
Last February, Howell says, ‘there was something in the air’, when three pairs of wolves enthusiastically bred for a week, so much so that she considered adding a ‘parental warning’ to the site’s live stream. Her fingers are now crossed for a few bountiful litters later this spring.
There has been progress, but restoration of both species to healthy populations is far from complete. Red wolves were declared extinct in 1980. Today, 12 of them live in the wild. There were only a handful of Mexican gray wolves left in the mid-1980s. Today there are 196, mostly in New Mexico and Arizona. Seven wolves born at the center have been reintroduced to their original habitat.
The center sees around 15,000 visitors a year, and many, including students, often ask how they can help the wolves. Most of the center’s funding comes from donations (online at nywolf.org) or from visitors who are inevitably impressed when they see Zephyr, Alawa, and Nikai up close. “They are good fundraisers!” Howell says of the trio. But she says what is needed in the long term is a change in people’s attitude towards animals.