For the past two years, a Mexican gray wolf named Ernesta has been living at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois in an environment much more akin to what is found in the wild than that of your run-of-the-mill zoo. At the zoo, she did not interact with humans, ate prey native to New Mexico such as elk and bison, lived among heated rocks, pools and loose dirt where she was encouraged to dig dens and tunnels, play and lounge. Even the structure of her den did not resemble any man-made buildings, but rather blended in with a natural environment.

On Saturday, October 27, she will start the journey into the real real thing, but first she must spend an interim period at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Wolf Management Facility at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico to make sure she is ready for release.

This is all part of the FWS’ ongoing initiative to reintroduce and bolster the population of Mexican gray wolves, the smallest, southern-most occurring, rarest, and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America, according to the USFWS Mexican Wolf Recovery Program.

“Just a few decades ago, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Mexican Gray Wolf Species Survival Plan was put in place to save the wolves from absolute extinction,” said Joan Daniels Tantillo, associate curator of mammals for the Chicago Zoological Society,  in a press release. “Ernesta’s potential transfer into the wild is an important step to help foster genetic diversity within the re-introduced population to allow this species to survive.”

In this pre-release stage, she will be exposed to other wolves and encouraged to find a mate to be paired with for potential release. On top of learning survival skills, she will be conditioned to avoid the taste of beef in hopes that she will not actively hunt ranchers’ cattle.

This sub species of gray wolf was first listed as endangered on the Endangered Species List in 1976. Currently, there are 283 Mexican wolves living in captivity across the United States. According to a 2011 census, a minimum count of 58 individuals in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona were recorded. In October 2011, five wolves were released for the first time in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, Ernesta and her mate will be the next two prepped for release.

Image courtesy of the Chicago Zoological Society

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