Recovering Mexican Wolves: An Aerial Approach

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
2 min readJan 29, 2021

Check out the previous post in this series:
Recovering Mexican Wolves: Every Wolf Counts
Recovering Mexican Wolves: How Radio Collars Contribute to Conservation

The aerial operation portion of the Mexican wolf count is conducted much like an orchestra — each person has a role to play — all in harmony. Instead of flutists, violinists, trumpeters, and drummers, however, there are pilots, aerial darters, muggers, and veterinarians working together to ensure that everyone (people and wildlife!) stays safe and achieves conservation goals. A helicopter darter uses darts with tranquilizers to sedate wolves, while a mugger is a person that helps locate, count and capture wolves from a helicopter.

A small plane with large front windows sits on a tarmac
A spotter plane like this one is used to locate wolves in the Mexican wolf recovery area. Photo: New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

Two aircraft are used in the annual Mexican wolf count and capture. A spotter plane uses radio location equipment to locate the day’s target wolves. Once the spotter plane has a location, it’s relayed to the helicopter below.

When the helicopter locates a Mexican wolf pack, the crew on board counts the number of wolves in the pack from the air. If a target wolf is located, and if the surrounding terrain accommodates a safe capture attempt, the helicopter darter will attempt to tranquilize the wolf from the air.

A member of the interagency team sits in a helicopter with a sedated wolf held in his lap.
A sedated Mexican wolf is muzzled and transported via helicopter to trained biologists waiting on the ground.Photo: George Andrejko, Arizona Game and Fish Department

If a dart goes in and a wolf succumbs to the effects of the tranquilizer, the helicopter will land and the helicopter darter and mugger will retrieve the sedated wolf. There’s a quick check of the wolf’s vital signs before it’s carried back to the helicopter. Once the air crew and wolf are safely secured, the helicopter transports the wolf to the nearest ground crew for processing.

A team member walks toward a helicopter and another team member holding a sedated wolf.
Once a wolf is dropped off to trained biologists on the ground, the helicopter takes off again to locate the next target wolf. Photo: Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team

In our next post, you’ll learn what happens when a Mexican wolf is brought in for processing. Stick with us!

Continuing posts in this series:
Recovering Mexican Wolves: A Quick Health Check



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