Wolf trackers follow packs, challenge myths

University alumnus Mike Nelson uses a radio receiver to track the location of the Birch Lake pack of wolves after discovering a kill on the lake shore.

Image by Steve Maturen

University alumnus Mike Nelson uses a radio receiver to track the location of the Birch Lake pack of wolves after discovering a kill on the lake shore.

ELY, Minn. âÄî University of Minnesota alumnus Mike Nelson stood on the frozen lake, a large swatch of bloody snow at his feet, his eyes pointed in toward shore. Nelson gripped a radio box and listened through headphones to a series of beeps transmitted from a radio collar that was wrapped around the neck of North AmericaâÄôs most controversial species: the gray wolf. âÄúTheyâÄôre still back there,âÄù Nelson said, and a minute later he was off, snowshoeing through the woods. After about an hour of analyzing tracks and bloodspots, Nelson was able to deduce that a pack of wolves had jumped two deer âÄî most likely a doe and her fawn âÄî and chased them through the deep snow to the lakeshore where they were able to wrestle one down. All Nelson could find of the deer was one leg, a jaw, part of a backbone and some hair. âÄúIt was a fawn,âÄù Nelson said. âÄúA pack can completely devour a fawn in about 45 minutes,âÄù Nelson found the kill site only a few miles away from here, where he has been tracking radio-collared wolves for the U.S. Geological Survey since 1974.

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But the wolf tracking program began even before Nelson started. David Mech, a University fisheries and wildlife professor, trapped and radio collared his first wolf in 1968 âÄî just one year after wolves were first put on the Endangered Species List. Since then, Mech has become one of the worldâÄôs most renowned wolf experts, studying the animals in the Great Lakes region, the western U.S. and Alaska. Mech said he started the project hoping to find out if wolves were territorial, using radio tracking technology that was developed at the University. As interest grew for the tracking project and Mech was aided by graduate students and volunteers, the project turned into a population study of sorts. The concept of wolf tracking, which Nelson is now in charge of, is relatively simple: trap the wolves in the summer, radio collar them and then track them by plane in the winter along with analyzing kill sites. Mech then analyzes the data to keep tabs on the wolves in the area and their overall population. Nelson flies in a small bush plane with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot two to three times a week, monitoring the wolf movement in his study area âÄî a 36-mile by 30-mile expanse of wilderness that butts up against the Minnesota-Canada border. Cruising at about 100 mph, they fly low to the ground, at less than 1,000 feet, so they can spot wolves through the pine canopy. Once they find a pack, they make tight circles and try to determine how many wolves are in the pack and if theyâÄôve made any recent kills. Nelson said there are at least 12 packs of wolves in the study area, with the average pack consisting of about six animals. Through years of monitoring, Nelson and Mech have discovered that wolves are capable of covering incredible distances âÄî they once radio collared a wolf that was found hundreds of miles away in MichiganâÄôs Upper Peninsula. WolvesâÄô willingness to travel and repopulate an area has been the key aspect of their controversial comeback, Mech said.

Wolf controversy

By the 1960s, hunters and trappers had decimated the wolf population. The animals were generally viewed as vermin, and the government paid bounties to anyone who killed a wolf. Wolves were all but eliminated from the lower 48 states except for one pocket of wilderness near Ely, where Nelson and Mech conduct their study. Wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1968 and their population has been steadily climbing since. As wolf numbers rebounded, however, contingencies of ranchers, farmers and hunters fiercely protested, complaining that wolves deplete game populations and steal cattle. Throughout MechâÄôs career, he has received countless angry e-mails and letters from people who despise the animal to which heâÄôs devoted his lifeâÄôs work. âÄúThe public is more rational these days, but there are still those extremists,âÄù Mech said. To help people better understand wolves, in 1989 Mech founded the International Wolf Center here. The center has an exhibit of six captive wolves and its main goal is to educate. âÄúWe try to take the myths out,âÄù Interpretative Center Director Sharee Johnson said. As the wolf population increases across the country, more incidents are likely to occur, Johnson said. âÄúWolves are always going to be controversial,âÄù she said. After gaining federal protection, wolves from the Ely area repopulated wilderness areas in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, which now hold 4,000 wolves combined, Nelson said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began working to removes wolves from the list in the Great Lakes region in 2003 and were successful in March 2007. Animal rights organizations, however, won a lawsuit to put wolves back on the list, which re-granted them federal protection in September 2008. The Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to have wolves delisted in January, and the service is now waiting on a ruling from President Barack ObamaâÄôs administration, which is currently reviewing the Bush administrationâÄôs federal decisions.

Should wolves be delisted?

Mech was on the panel that decided when it would be safe to take wolves off the Endangered Species List, and among other things, the panel decided that once the wolf population in Minnesota reached 1,250, they should be delisted. That mark was passed in 1978 and the current wolf population in Minnesota is about 3,000, Mech said. âÄúThe endangered species list is meant to keep a species from going extinct,âÄù Mech said. âÄúWhen you have 4,000 wolves in the Midwest, you donâÄôt have to worry about them going extinct.âÄù Taking wolves off of the list would shift the responsibility of wolf management from federal agencies to wildlife agencies. Also, farmers would be able to shoot wolves that attack cattle âÄîthey currently have to call wildlife officials if they have any wolf incidents. Delisting could also open the door for hunting and trapping, even though state agencies have vowed to not allow wolf hunting or trapping for at least five years after the animal is delisted, Mech said. Even if wolf hunting is one day allowed in Minnesota, it wouldnâÄôt negatively affect the overall wolf population, Mech said. Wolves are extremely hard to hunt and trap, and many that were killed in the 1950s and 1960s were shot from planes, an activity that is now illegal, Mech said. âÄúShort of poisoning them, I donâÄôt know how they could hurt these populations now,âÄù Mech said. Nelson also agreed that itâÄôs time for wolves to be delisted. âÄúYou can see the success of the Endangered Species Act ,âÄù he said. âÄúIt worked.âÄù Mike Maternowsky, a hunting and fishing guide for Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, said he sees more wolves every year when he goes out hunting. Maternowsky said he spends more than half the year in the wilderness. But even with the increase of wolves, Maternowsky said the deer population has not suffered. Most hunters in the area are used to wolves and there isnâÄôt as much hatred as there use to be, he said. Even though itâÄôs not uncommon for wolves to come into Ely âÄî about five dogs are eaten by wolves in town each year âÄî Maternowsky said most locals arenâÄôt scared of wolves and there probably wouldnâÄôt be much interest in hunting them. âÄúIâÄôve never had a problem with wolves while hunting,âÄù Maternowsky said. âÄúI have absolutely no fear of wolves.âÄù