(KGTV) — About four miles south of Julian, off Highway 79, an effort is underway to bring back a key apex predator that was nearly wiped out.
“They are very important to the environment, and it is our human duty to bring them back from the brink,” said Ciera Maclsaac, the wolf care coordinator at the 45-acre nonprofit California Wolf Center.
The Mexican Gray Wolf was once numbered in the thousands throughout the American Southwest and Mexico. But during much of the 20th century, environmentalists say governments in both countries, trapped and poisoned the wolves to near extinction to protect cattle.
“They are still struggling,” said Maclsaac. “We're still having to be able to reintroduce them.”
The California Wolf Center is part of a network of conservation efforts in the United States and Mexico.
“I love working with them,” said Maclsaac. “You get to learn a bunch of different personalities They play a lot and they're really dorky. They're very family-oriented animals. It is an incredible job.”
And critical, as Maclsaac points out, these animals are descendant from a very few survivors.
“With Mexican Gray Wolves, their gene pool is very, very, shallow. There were only 13 left and only seven founding Mexican Gray Wolves in the 70s.”
From those seven, there are now an estimated 186 Mexican Grays in the wild with some 350 spread out among various zoos and breeding programs.
“We have 34 wolves on site,” said Maclsaac, “We have four North American Gray wolves, and we have 30 Mexican Gray wolves. And most, explained Maclsaac, are kept out of sight from people. “We want to make sure — A: That they're ready for the wild; B: That they are pretty terrified of people. So, we do not socialize with our wolves.”
But to help fund conservation, a few “ambassadors” are availed for paid tours. And can be enticed with a special treat.
“So, these are frozen mice,” said Maclsaac as she reached with a gloved hand into a bag to retrieve the snacks. “With Mexican Gray Wolves, we do have to treat them differently than most other wolves, because they are a recovery species.”
The animals are kept on a wild game diet so they don’t get a taste for livestock. Sometimes local hunters will donate a deer they’ve taken or a road mishap can be dinner.
“They very much enjoy roadkill deer,” said Maclsaac.
The goal is to return the Mexican Gray to the wild, where it can resume its place as a keystone species in a healthy ecosystem. To help nudge that along, some of the pups bred in captivity, are skillfully snuck into the litters of wild packs where they're unwittingly adopted.
“They [conservationists] do a lot of sent marking to make sure the puppies smell just like the wild puppies,” said Maclsaac, “So that momma has no idea she has new puppies.”
And despite cultural fears stoked by folklore, like the "Big Bad Wolf," Maclsaac says wolves are typically not on the hunt for people.
“They hear you, smell you and see you, way before you see them. We get asked all the time, what do I do if I see a wolf in the wild? I say, go buy a lottery ticket, because you're very lucky.”
And we’re all lucky to be able to see them here at the California Wolf Center near Julian.
If you’re interested in seeing the wolves for yourself and helping to restore their place in the wild, you can learn more from the California Wolf Center by visiting https://www.californiawolfcenter.org/.
You can also visit their nature center and gift shop in the heart of Julian.