Wolves show gritty instinct to survive

CLAM LAKE, Wis. (AP) – As Adrian Wydeven drove the snowy wilds of the Chequamegon National Forest, keeping an eye out the truck window for signs of wolves, his thoughts returned again and again to one old wolf, different from any he had ever encountered, and that for years made these remote forests and swamps her home.

An ecologist and conservation biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, Wydeven has helped run the agency’s wolf recovery program for the past two decades. He spends his days tracking wolves, trapping and radio-collaring them, howling on summer nights for them. He traipses despondently toward steady signals from their transmitters, known in the trade as “mortality” signals, to collect the stilled bodies of dead wolves.

And now, he is helping to figure out how the state’s first wolf hunt affected an animal that just a little over a year ago was listed as an endangered species, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

But on this sunlit late winter day, it was one wolf that preoccupied Wydeven. The wolf had no name. She was known only by the number on her radio collar: 475. In her story, Wydeven believes, can be read the story of all Wisconsin wolves and their frequently inspiring, sometimes violent, always controversial return to a state that is still trying to figure out how it feels about living with these enigmatic creatures.

Wydeven told the story of 475 as he conducted a winter tracking survey of her pack, the Shanagolden pack southeast of Clam Lake. Such winter surveys have been conducted throughout Wisconsin’s wolf country since 1979 – at the very beginning of the wolf recovery effort – so biologists can get a handle each year on the number of animals as well as the number and size of packs.

In the wake of the state’s first wolf hunt, the field work has taken on new importance. This winter, trackers, both DNR professionals and volunteers, gather information that will allow ecologists to determine the impact of the hunt on both the overall number of wolves and the social structure of the packs, which is an important factor in successful reproduction.

The data gathered will be used to set a statewide population number and, later this year, quotas for the next wolf hunt. The information might play a role in the coming year in an even more controversial debate – whether to revisit the population goal of 350 wolves, which some believe is dangerously below the current population of about 800 and not an accurate reflection of how many animals the Wisconsin landscape can sustain. Observations of packs could also prove valuable in the agency’s deliberations over rules for using dogs to hunt wolves in the coming season.

Wydeven has kept close track of the Shanagolden pack for years because of its notorious reputation. It has killed perhaps more bear-hunting dogs than any pack in the state. The deep woods of the Chequamegon National Forest and sparsely settled surroundings nearby have in the past been a favorite spot for bear hunters to train their hounds, and bloody, fatal encounters between the dogs and wolves have been frequent.

Until her death, 475 was part of that story.

Wydeven recalled first slipping the radio collar around the tranquilized wolf’s neck on June 24, 2004. She was scraggly, 3 or 4 years old and weighed 60 pounds, about 10 pounds less than the average adult female. Both of her lower canines and outer lower incisors had been broken off. She was not in good shape, and Wydeven did not expect her to last long.

On Aug. 4 that same year, bear hunters training their dogs in the Shanagolden territory reported three of their dogs were killed by wolves. The next night, Wydeven visited the area to conduct a howling survey. In an area not far from where the dogs had been killed he raised howls from 475 and her pack, probably four adults and at least three pups. It was likely, Wydeven concluded, that 475 was involved in the attack on the hunting dogs.

Over the next several weeks, other run-ins between wolves and dogs were reported in the Shanagolden territory, and a number of dogs were killed. A pattern emerged. It seemed almost all of the dogs were killed near the pack’s summer rendezvous site. The sites are like summer homes for the animals, where young pups are raised and schooled. Wolves, Wydeven said, will fiercely defend pups in such areas, and 475 was probably among the wolves tending her pups near where the hunting dogs were killed.

The agency warned bear hunters to stay away from the area and recommended that, if they did train their dogs in the pack’s territory, the dogs be outfitted with bells. Even so, at least three more dogs were killed that season, Wydeven recalled.

Over the next couple of years, perhaps because of growing awareness on the part of hunters, there were no hunting dogs killed by the Shanagolden pack. The attacks, however, resumed in 2008 and 2009.

Wydeven recalled how pleased he was back then to find that, despite his initial misgivings about her condition, 475 seemed to be thriving. Between 2005 and 2009, she was probably the alpha female in the pack, he said. And the pack itself was healthy in its remote stronghold, ranging anywhere from six to 10 wolves. Time and again, Wydeven would pick up 475’s signal, or pilots would spot her in the forest below as she roamed a territory as large as 86 square miles.

Wolves love to roam, especially in the winter, and as Wydeven conducted his tracking survey a few weeks ago in the Shanagolden territory, he stitched together a story from the tracks and a snapshot of the pack’s current health. A recurring group of tracks told him that four or five animals were mapping and marking their territory, just as 475 did for years with her companion animals. Several times he pointed out spots of blood in the tracks, a good sign that one female was in heat, he said, and that the pack was likely to produce pups this breeding season.

The health of this pack, Wydeven said as he recorded data on his clipboard, can be at least partly attributed to its territory of thick forest and swamp, designated for hunting purposes as a core, or protected area, buffered from the full impact of the hunt. Such areas will be important, he said, to ensure the future of the animal in Wisconsin.

All told, during the six years that 475 wore her collar and unwittingly transmitted her whereabouts, the Shanagolden pack killed 18 dogs and injured one. Though it is difficult to know for sure, Wydeven said, 475 was probably involved in a number of the attacks, including possibly one fatal attack on a pet black Labrador in 2010 in the far eastern, more settled portion of the pack’s territory.

But Wydeven said 475 and the Shanagolden pack offered important lessons, too. The DNR, for example, now has an email notification system to alert hunters to areas such as the Shanagolden territory where attacks on dogs have been frequent. And the science behind such attacks is somewhat better understood. If wolves in a pack kill a hunting dog, they are likely to do so again, Wydeven said. And attacks seem to happen more frequently in rendezvous and denning sites where wolves are protecting their young.

On Oct. 5, 2010, a DNR pilot picked up a mortality signal from 475. A few days later, Wydeven found her body in dense forest near the edge of a bog not far from the Chippewa River.

Later examination of her body showed she had lost all of her lower incisors and other teeth, probably from the blast of a shotgun fired at her lower jaw when she was no more than 2 years old. Shotgun pellets were found embedded in her skull, scapula, upper portions of the front leg and portions of a hind leg. A recent shot to the side of her skull might have contributed to her death.

Despite those disabling injuries over the years, placental scars showed the old wolf had borne at least seven litters of pups. Such a remarkable feat would be impossible were it not for 475 having been surrounded by a supportive pack that helped feed her and share the parenting chores – a reminder, Wydeven said, of the importance of making sure future hunts are not disrupting the social structure of packs.

Mostly, Wydeven said, the story that 475 wrote on the landscape with her wanderings and her struggles and, no doubt, her pain, is testament to the wolf’s gritty instinct to survive season after season with a modern and frequently hostile world closing hard upon its wild home.