Tuesday, December 27, 2011


This is the final installment of a three part series, which details the efforts to retrieve a radio-collared wolf that died in the fall of 2010.  The first four attempts were covered in the most recent blog posts.

On Foot
At some point this story has to end, right?  After our attempts in February, to find wolf 989 we had decided to let the wolf stay where it was.  But then March came to the Ely area, and with it spectacular weather and melting snow.

I decided to give it one more try. On Saturday, March 26, I set out with two friends on a spectacular day.  Brilliant blue skies, warm sun and no snow on the lakes made for fast going.  The winter had been cold and long, and although the temperatures on this day would reach the mid-30’s, there was still nearly three feet of ice on the lakes on which we traveled.

We hiked out to the location between Bald Eagle and Turtle Lakes an hour faster than we had been able to ski the same 6 mile distance.  Between faster travel and longer days, time would not be a limiting factor on this trip.

We walked right up to the wolf’s location and were getting strong signals with the radio telemetry unit.  We checked the high area, we checked the low area and we even climbed down to a rock ledge and into a large crack that feasibly could hold a wolf.

There were signs of other animals in the area this time and speculation flew around about what might have happened to the wolf’s body.  We shoveled significant amounts of snow to be certain we weren’t missing anything.  No luck.  After about an hour and a half of looking, we decided that the wolf—or possibly just the collar—was buried in the snow and ice.

By Canoe
Feeling a bit like Captain Ahab at this point, I wanted just one more look after the ice went out on the lakes and the snow melted.  My wife, Molly, and I connected with students from Outward Bound who needed to complete a service project to successfully finish their course.

They agreed to paddle with us and help us look for the wolf.  It was a wonderful day for a paddle and the students, teenagers from all over the United States, were a joy to paddle with.  Unfortunately, the outcome was the same.  The signal was still strong and it appeared to be at the base of the cliff.  Despite much crawling around and checking in very small spaces we could not locate the wolf.

Wolf 989 would remain where he died. Or so I thought.

In early October I received an e-mail from Dr. Shannon Barber-Meyer, the wolf biologist with the USGS wolf-deer study.  The subject of the e-mail was “Wolf 989’s story ends.”  Two field technicians for the project made a final attempt and found the wolf.

It was located in the large crack that we had looked around and into numerous times, but was all the way at the bottom.  During the winter it had been covered in snow.  One of the technicians, Hans Martin, climbed all the way down into the crack—an extremely tight space—and brought wolf 989 out for inspection. (See pictures).  The technicians also found part of the shoulder and some tufts of hair up on the ledge above the crack.  They then took measurements, brought the skull back for inclusion in on-going research.  They brought the collar back as well, to put it back in use in the future.                     (Photo: Hans Martin)

Now the question became, “How did the wolf get there?”  Though we will never know the answer, a number of theories were discussed and debated. Did it die above the crack and then slide down into it with the snow?  Was it chasing prey and slip unintentionally into the crack, leaving it unable to get out?  Did it die up on the ledge and get carried down into the crack by a scavenger?  Each one of those possibilities has supporting and contradictory evidence.

What did I Learn?
Being an educator, I immediately began to think about the lessons learned from this effort.  To be sure, I gained experience in winter travel by ski and by dog team.  I learned a little more about the use of radio telemetry equipment in the field and I got the chance to travel with some excellent people in a variety of conditions.

I also learned that any preconceived notions of the romance and glamour of the life of a field biologist might need to be adjusted to meet reality.  Harsh weather conditions, challenging physical efforts and the disappointment associated with not achieving the task at hand are just some of the many obstacles they face.  I’ll definitely offer to assist in retrieval efforts in the future hope to be able to share some of those experiences in this space as well.