Wolf study in northwoods
a worthwhile weekend
Workshop details success
of state recovery program
by Dick Kloppenburg Speciel to PrimeLiving
It was a cold weekend … nothing new for January in northern
Wisconsin. Our group of 35 people strained their ears on a starry clear night, hoping to
No luck. All we heard was two
humans trying to howl up a wolf.
We were attending a Study of
Wolves Workshop at Treehaven,
the University of Wisconsin natural resources education center
located east of Tomahawk.
We saw no wolves, heard no
wolves, but the weekend was far
From a bust. Other than some
evening grosbeaks and chickadees, the only wildlife we
observed on three excursions
outdoors were two coyotes and a
The workshop was presented
by Bob Welch of Waupaca and
Scott Thiel of Altoona, both
members of the Timber Wolf
Information Network (TWIN).
Welch is a former DNR
employee who worked in the
Timber Wolf Recovery Program
for three years and also as a volunteer Thiel is the brother of
Dick Thiel, who head DNR’s wolf
program after it was announced
in 1979 the predators were once
again roaming the northwoods.
Scott has been a volunteer “forever” in the wolf study.
With over 30 participants in
the workshop, there were probably the same number of reasons
for attending. Mine was curiosity
I had followed the story of the
return of wolves to Wisconsin
over the years and wanted to
Treehaven is an ideal setting
for nature workshops. You’re put
up in dormitory style rooms; you
dine in a facility perched on a
ridge overlooking the Harrison
Hills and the remote setting is
conducive to study.
At our initial session Friday
night, Norm Poulton, an area
resident, told us of his relationship with a wolf named Lobo.
After an initial sighting, in the
Tomahawk area, Poulton spent
five years tracking Lobo, reporting his findings to DNR
researchers. Lobo was classified
as a dispenser, a wolf which
leaves its pack and strikes out on
its own in search of a home and a
Other than several sightings
from a car, the only real sighting
Poulton made was during a snow
storm when he sat on a bluff and
watched his human tracker.
Lobo went through three
mates, and had pups, which
failed to survive the parvo virus
disease. Lobo eventually succumbed to a .22 bullet.
Poulton’s message and his
quest to keep tabs on the wolf,
“Sometimes it’s enough just to
know they’re there. I hope you
learn something at this workshop and someday find your
The remainder of the session merely whetted our appetites for
There were videos of wolves — how to distinguish a wolf from a
dog and a coyote or a wolf dog highbrid, visually, by tracks and by
examining scat (animal droppings). There was also a video
which debunked the bad perception wolves have among farmers
Making plaster casts of wolf
tracks from master casts proved
Additional members of TWIN were on hand to respond to questions and sell a variety of
items ranging from books to T-shirts and wolf pictures.
I bunked with Ryan
Christianson of Edgar, who
teaches school in Marshfield. He
was taking the workshop for
credit and also plans to make
use of his new wolf knowledge in
Saturday morning was devoted to classroom study in preparation for field trips in the afternoon and evening.
Wisconsin’s recent wolf history
goes back to the early ’70s, when
Dick Thiel, his brother Scott,
Welch and others attempted to
prove to DNR officials that the
animals were back and were
“We’d send samples of scat
and urine to Madison and if
those packages sat over the
weekend, and it was warm,
things must have been pretty
awful for the lab people by
Monday,” Scott Thiel said of that
By 1950, fewer than 50 wolves
lived in scattered locations
across the north, and by 1960,
breeding was no longer taking
place, and the last wolf was
believed to have been hit by a car
in Bayfield County
How did wolves return? The
first were probable immigrants
DNR began its official study of
wolf activity in 1979, after listing
the animal as endangered four
years earlier Between 1970 and
1991, 57 wolves were captured 65
times. The state’s wolf population ranged between 15 and 40,
minimum, in that time span.
The goal of the wolf recovery
program was to achieve a population of 80 wolves. Presently, the
census estimates the population at 100 and hearings have been
held to re-classify the wolf to
“threatened” status. Data from
the survey is expected to be
announced within weeks.
Experts say parvo virus and
mange are the two diseases
which might limit the growth of
Wolves are pack animals but
only the dominant, or alpha,
male and female breed. Biders
wait their time within the pack
hierarchy waiting for their
opportunity to assume dominance. Others may disperse
looking for their own territory or a mate.
The alpha animals are also the
first to feed on a “kill.”
The life expectancy of a wolf in
Wisconsin is 8 years. Pack size
here ranges between four and
eight animals. Each pack has its
own territory, which is actively
defended. That territory in the
Badger State may be about 100
to 110 square miles in size.
Visually, a wolf appears almost
as large as a deer Its tail is held
high compared to other canids
such as dogs and coyotes. Their
feet and legs almost appear to be
exaggerated, large and long.
Describing the wolf howl,
Welch said, “It’s one of the most
beautiful sounds in all of nature.
You don’t need a full moon to
hear a wolf howl … that werewolf
stuff doesn’t hold. “
Welch then drew applause as
he demonstrated his ability to
howl. He howled as an adult, a
pup and a yearling.
Urination marks and scat provide researchers with information about wolves. For
only the alpha animals raise
their legs to urinate, subordinates squat. Urination is used to
mark the perimeter of a pack’s
territory. Scat reveals the animal’s diet.
In Wisconsin, the primary prey
of the wolf is the whitetail deer a
fact which made it the target of
much prejudice. In spring,
beaver on land become a part of
the wolf diet. Snowshoe hare are
also important prey. Contrary to
popular opinion, wolves could
not subsist on mice.
At one point, Lincoln County’s
Averill Creek pack was the
southern most wolf pack in the
United States. That has changed
with the recent finding that up
to four packs are now ranging as
far south as Jackson County in
the Tomah area.
In terms of tracks, the wolf has
a disciplined gait, walking in a
very straight line. Dogs on the
other hand are like hyper-active
children. The footprint of a wolf
is massive – 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches
long and 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 inches
wide. It is also rectangular in
All this information prepared
us for our initial field trip to the New Wood area of Lincoln County. It was a cold, crisp
As mentioned, the afternoon outing provided us with a look at two coyotes which crossed
the road in front of our school bus and a porcupine that decided to dine at roadside.
That night we tried to howl up some wolf activity with Welch and Thiel providing the calling.
The stars were magnificent! The wolves, however, didn’t respond.
Sunday morning in class our facilitators discussed wolf perceptions, Wisconsin’s recovery
program and the principles involved in radio telemetry (radio collars). There was also a
telemetry demonstration outdoors where one of our classmates played wolf and we
tracked the human-wolf with equipment, just as the researchers track a wolf in the
“Our objective is to throw a lot of facts at you and let you make up your minds about the
wolf,” said Scott Thiel. “We want to educate you and allow you to decide where the wolf
“The wolf is a predator, but over the years we have built up a prejudice regarding wolves.
We talk of the wolf being at your
door if you can’t pay your bills …
we talk of a wolf in sheep’s clothing … our European ancestors
“Fact is, there has never been
a documented case of a wolf
attacking a human being in
North America,” he said.
The weekend concluded all
too soon. It was educating, fascinating and fun. The cost,
which includes six meals and
two nights in the dorm — $130.
Now let me see … there’s this
owl program at Treehaven in
I have been told the three
wolf study workshops scheduled
in 1998 are already filled.
For information on the wolf
workshops and other Treehaven
nature programs, write
Registrar, W2540 Pickerel Creek
Ave., Tomahawk, WI 54487-9112.