July 1, 2010 — -- It's not all fun and play for five 8-week-old puppies in St. Louis, Mo. The future of the nearly extinct Mexican gray wolf rests on their furry shoulders.
The wolf pups -- four light gray males and one female -- were introduced to the media today at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis. Though they calmly sat through vaccinations and the injection of tracking microchips, their parents were a bit antsy and their center caretakers brimmed with anticipation.
"It may surprise some that five newly born wolf pups can make such a dramatic impact on the recovery of a threatened ecosystem in the western United States," said Mac Sebald, the center's executive director. "But when you start with essentially zero in the wild, these five lives make an immeasurable difference."
Of the nearly 300 Mexican grays in the world, 42 are in the wild and the rest are in captivity. That's the reason for the excitement around the new pups, who will be introduced into the wild when they are old enough, between 18 months and three years.
The Mexican gray wolf "is the most endangered gray wolf in the world," said the center's Kim Scott, director of animal care and conservation. "It is the majority of the species that we work with here."
Indigenous to the U.S. Southwest and Mexico and once known as "El Lobos," the species was designated endangered in 1976 and was considered extinct in the wild until reintroduction into New Mexico and Arizona and portions of Mexico in 1998.
Center officials say that the Mexican gray was hunted, trapped and poisoned for more than a century by ranchers and others.
"Wolves were the most prolific animal across the continent but predator control programs were starting to be put in place by the mid-1800s. We didn't really appreciate large predators and carnivores in our environment. We felt they were a threat. ... We had livestock and we had kids. We didn't think large carnivores served any purpose other than a dangerous one. There was a real methodology to just eradicating them through government programs, with bounties, very excessive no-limit trappings. We wiped out most large carnivores in this country," Scott said.
By the 1950s and 1960s, attitudes toward the Mexican gray wolf started to change with the broader concept of ecosystem health.
"Everything has a balance. You have a chain so you have carnivores that are eating the deer that are eating the plants. When you take something out of than chain, it invariably has an effect," she said.
In the early '70s and '80s, federal programs got involved and a census was taken in the wild -- in the U.S. and Mexico -- to find out how many wolves were left.
"We spent millions of dollars to eradicate them and now we are spending millions of dollars to bring them back," she said.
Scott said the goal of the program is to have roughly 100 in the wild.
The center was founded in 1971 by zoologist Marlin Perkins, a St. Louis native best known as the host of TV's "Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom."
Since 1998, the center, situated on 63 isolated acres in southwest St. Louis County, has played a pivotal role in efforts to replenish the Mexican gray wolf population. There were five left in the wild before the program started. Officials say that 162 Mexican grays have been born at the center.
"There have been pitfalls and successes," Scott said. "Takes a lot to manage a species, reintroduce it, have state involvement, public involvement. Everyone has to get on board to make it successful."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.