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Wolf study in northwoods a worthwhile weekend

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

hear wolves.

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

know more.

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

and ranchers.

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

his classroom.

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

from Minnesota.

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

wolf numbers.

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

fits in.”

“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

feared wolves.

“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.