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Wolf study in northwoods

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 porcupine.

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 mate.

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 Lobo.”

The remainder of the session merely whetted our appetites for more.

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 Popular.

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 breeding.

“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 effort.

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 example, 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 shape.

All this information prepared us for our initial field trip to the New Wood area of Lincoln County. It was a cold, crisp day.

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 wild.

“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 March.

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.