Monday, February 6, 2012

We Saw Wolves!

A few Saturdays ago, I took six adventurous souls out into the Superior National Forest for the day to learn about field biology. We began our day at 7:00 a.m. with copious amounts of coffee and apple Danish in hand as we got to know each other and went over the day’s plans.

We spent the morning engaged in the fine details of using radio telemetry equipment. However, no matter how adept you are at using the equipment, if the wolves aren’t around, it does no good. We spent two hours trying to locate one, just one, wild wolf fitted with a radio collar with no luck. But, hey, that’s part of the deal when trying to locate animals on the ground in the winter with 6 to 10 inches of snow in a national forest with few roads.

Thankfully, our pilot, Rick, was ready at the Ely airport to take us up in his small-engine Cessna 172 outfitted with telemetry antennae on each strut. We charted a course to seek out the Slate and Mitawan Lake packs south and east of the airport.

The first flight was a bust. While two participants eagerly scanned the ground 1,000 feet below us for signs of wildlife, I was manning the receiver. I was only picking up faint signals that seemed to go in and out. I was frustrated and confused. Upon landing, Rick and I realized that the coaxial cable connecting the receiver to the antennae was loose and worn – the likely cause for the faint and intermittent signals. I had even checked the receiver with a dummy collar positioned on the fence at the airport before we left. Blasted!

After fixing the cable issue, we took the second group of participants up and chose a different route toward Fernberg Road (referred to as “the Fernberg”) east of Ely towards Moose Lake pack territory. On the way as we flew over a part of the Kawishiwi River someone spotted something.

“Two wolves! Two wolves running up the river!”

The participants in the backseat had zoned in on two moving dots on the river and recognized them as canids rather than deer. While I had my nose buried in the map trying to make sure I had the correct wolf collar frequency for the location we were flying over, my participants were searching for any sign of movement.

The two wolves, both gray in color, were trotting toward a wooded edge of the river periodically stopping to look back. About 300 ya
rds behind them was a group of Wintergreen dogsledders about to cross a portage onto the wolves’ section of the river. Based on their body language, the wolves were not comfortable with the three dog teams heading their way. With tucked tails the two wolves disappeared into the forest.

It’s not often that I take a group up in the air and we find wolves without the aid of radio collars. I took this as a reminder that wolf research is not just about looking where the wolf should be; it’s also about looking where the wolf might be.

Check back next week for what happened later that day when we hiked in to a lake where we had observed a collared wolf later during that same flight.