There is a well-known video in conservation circles that shows the last known Thylacine in Australia. Captured in black and white, the now-extinct animal with a blockish head and striped hindquarters appears strange to modern eyes, pacing a cage and sniffing the air anxiously as though he were transported from a different world. I was reminded of that footage recently when I came across the video above, which shows one of the last, wild Mexican grey wolves. Rick LoBello, an education curator at the El Paso Zoo, shot the film in the late 1970s with an 8 mm camera in Alpine, Texas, but the animal was captured by an infamous American hunter and tracker by the name of Roy McBride. I've been writing about McBride and his involvement with a different species, the Florida panther, over the last few months, but his work with Mexican gray wolves is at least, if not even more, fascinating.
When Cormac McCarthy was writing the second book in his Border Trilogy series, The Crossing, he found inspiration for the story of a haunted sixteen-year-old boy trying to catch a she-wolf in McBride, who once spent eleven months trying to hunt and kill a single Mexican gray wolf in the Durango-Zacatecas border. Among the circle of hunters and naturalists in the American southwest, the story has become the stuff of legend. The male wolf was known as "Las Margaritas," and he was missing two toes from his left front foot, the result of an encounter with a metal trap that he managed to escape from. In the late 1960s, Las Margaritas was killing dozens of yearling steers and heifers on Mexican ranches. “The wolf seldom used the same trail twice and if he came into a pasture by a log road, he left by a cow trail,” wrote McBride in a 1980 government report. “I was sure I could catch Las Margaritas, but I couldn’t get him near a trap.” McBride tried baited traps and blind traps, traps boiled in oak leaves, and traps concealed in carefully sifted dirt. None worked. “Almost a year had passed and I was now convinced that I would never catch this wolf,” he wrote. “At times, however, I had noticed where Margaritas had investigated a campfire along the road where log-truck drivers had stopped along the way to cook. I set a trap near a road that the wolf was sure to come down if it continued to kill in the area, built a fire over the trap and let it burn itself out.” McBride put a piece of dried skunk hide in the ashes and waited. One day in March, the wolf caught wind of the ashes and went to investigate. The trap caught him by his crippled foot. “Just how the wolf could tell the traps were there is something I cannot comprehend to this date,” wrote McBride.
Wolf lovers and conservationists will shudder at the story of a man hunting down what we now know was one of the few remaining individuals of the Mexican gray wolf species in the wild. But McBride’s legacy is more complicated than that. In 1976 the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Endangered Species hired McBride to find out whether any of the same wolves the government had previously hired him to kill, had survived in Mexico. He traveled around the country and found some twelve wolves in the state of Durango and half a dozen in the state of Chihuahua. In all, McBride estimated as many as fifty individuals in all of Mexico might still be living, but the possibility of the species being saved in the wild was impossible. So the next year the government hired him to trap six gray wolves, two in Sierra del Nido in Chihuahua and four near Coneto in Durango and deliver them for a captive breeding program in Tucson, Arizona. The resulting Mexican gray wolf conservation program was defined by years of political controversy, bureaucratic turmoil and a population of animals that fluctuated perilously close to extinction. But today, around 80 Mexican gray wolves roam the southwest, more than any time since the government reintroduced them to the wild in 1998. The population descends from just seven individuals representing three captive lineages; the Aragon, Ghost Ranch and McBride. “I think I had the best job anybody ever had,” said McBride once. “It was worth it to get to see those tracks and the things they did. I had no idea we could ever get rid of them. There just wasn’t any support to try and preserve them. Or if there was, you didn’t know who they were.”