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MN: A new approach to wolf research

Dr. Barber-Meyer will try non-invasive methods


ELY— For half a century, wolf researchers working just east of Ely have used leghold traps and radio-collaring to track, count, and assess the health and behavior of the wolf population in a 2,000-square kilometer study area.

But now, Dr. Shannon Barber-Meyer is working to change that, and she’s asking for help from the public to make it happen. Barber-Meyer outlined her idea last week to the Ely Field Naturalists during a presentation at Vermilion Community College.

Barber-Meyer’s concept is all part of a growing trend in the field of wildlife research to move away from the more invasive methods that researchers have used for decades. For years, researchers studying larger animals have relied on capturing wild animals, often through the use of anesthetizing drugs, to gather data on their subjects. In the case of wolves in the Superior National Forest, which have been the subject of Dr. David Mech’s research since the 1960s, researchers have relied on leghold traps and tranquilizers, which have allowed them to gather blood and other tissue samples, and fit their subjects with radio collars.

But Barber-Meyer said the younger generation of researchers is increasingly looking for less invasive methods that eliminate the stress, and sometimes the deaths, of the animals they study.

Barber-Meyer works under the supervision of Dr. Mech, who at 81 is still very active in wolf research. Barber-Meyer said Dr. Mech was initially skeptical when she proposed to continue the wolf research without the use of traps and radio collars, but that he was willing to consider it once she had outlined her proposal in detail.

Instead of the traditional methods, Barber-Meyer wants to deploy technologies that weren’t available in the past, like DNA analysis, and engage the public in helping her track the movements of wolves within her study area, which is centered on the eastern end of the Fernberg Road. By using recorded observations by the public, trail cameras, snow tracking, and by collecting scat for DNA analysis, Barber-Meyer hopes to be able to keep tabs on the movements and numbers of wolves in the study area.

For it all to work, she’ll need help from folks like the Ely Field Naturalists, who spend time in her study area and pay attention to what’s going around them. “We’re asking for input from people who just happen to be out there anyway,” she said.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and Barber-Meyer acknowledges that something like it really hasn’t been done before. “There is some skepticism about whether this can work,” she said.

Her new approach won’t really get underway until next winter, she said, since winter is the best time to keep tabs on wolves through their tracks and scat. “We’ll be asking people to start helping out next January through March,” said Barber-Meyer.

In the meantime, she said she’ll be reaching out to ice fishing and dogsledding guides, skiers, members of the field naturalists, and others who travel in the study area during winter, to let them know what kind of information she’s looking for.

Mostly, she said, she’s seeking wolf scat and information on verified wolf tracks, and actual wolf sightings. In every case, she said, she’ll need dates and as precise a location as possible. By piecing all of the data together from multiple sources, she’s hopeful she can gain as clear a picture of wolf numbers and wolf activity in the study area as is possible through the current methods. While the new approach may allow Barber-Meyer to obtain much of the information that’s currently gathered in less intrusive ways, she acknowledges that some data likely will be missed. “There are a slew of things you can’t get without capture methods,” she said, including blood samples, precise movement information, and cause of death data.

“If this works, we wouldn’t be trapping in the summer [of 2019],” she said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll suspend the idea and go back to our old methods.”