A wolf’s trust gained & lost

I was assigned a wolf tracking block in the year 2000 that had a new alpha female in the territory. I set out exploring this new territory. I spent summers scouting the wolf family’s home, and winters surveying thier tracks. I first caught sight of this new alpha female as she crossed the road in front of me. She stopped in the ditch, looked straight at me, and I saw those eyes all framed in white. I named her White Eyes, and thus began the relationship between wolf tracker and wolf. 

Wolf tracks in winter, photograph taken by Rachel Tilseth, 2009.
Part of monitoring wolves during Wisconsin’s wolf recovery days was conducting wolf howl surveys during summer and fall. Howl surveys were used to find out if a pack had puppies or not. While conducting these howl surveys that first summer I was favored with a howl from the entire wolf family. Then, one evening was startled by a lone wolf howling right next to me. On another evening I could see two wolf silhouettes in the moonlight howling back at me.

White Eyes’s family only had five family members at a time, because that was the maximum amount of wolves that this 24 square mile range could support. Every adult member was needed to hunt, and the pups were just to young to join them. The puppies were stashed in a brushy area for safe keeping while the rest of the family was off hunting.
On a warm July summer night in 2002 I was about to find out that a wolf’s trust could be broken. I was on a howl survey that night when White Eyes stashed her two pups, then headed off to hunt. That night on my first howl, and to my surprise & delight, White Eyes’ two pups responded back to me. 

Right before my eyes stood two wolf pups bathed in full moonlight. One pup was light in color, and the other was dark in color. One wolf pup was obviously an alpha, and began making the defensive bark howl call. They were around three to four months old, and still very vulnerable at that age. I dared not linger, because that could bring danger to the pups. However, I did name them Salt and Pepper, then I left the area. 

Bird Sanctuary in Douglas county, photograph taken by Rachel Tilseth, 2014.

The following summer I went about the business of conducting howl surveys, but something changed. I could see the signs the family left behind, such as scat and a track or two left in mud. However, I wasn’t able to get a peep out of “White Eyes” or any of her pack members. But finally in desperation one night I asked my son Jacob to try a howl, and the wolves responded. He was able to get several of White Eyes’s family to respond back to his howl. 

What did that tell me about White eyes? Right then and there I realized that a wolf’s trust could be broken. I spent 2 years building a relationship with White Eyes, and in one summer lost that trust, because I got too close to her pups. All of this made me realize that I was a tolerated human observer, but not when it came to wolf pups. In other words don’t mess with a wolf family’s pups.

It took another year before the trust was regained. I was allowed to hear the family howls again. I was able to hear them howl just before sunset, and while they were hunting at midnight. As long as I learned to steer clear of White Eyes’s pups. 

Drawing of “White Eyes” by Rachel Tilseth, that became WODCW’s logo.
This story was written in loving memory of “White Eyes” who died in 2009 after being hit by a vehicle. She leaves a lasting legacy as one of the “Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin” named to bring awareness to the plight of wolves. Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin was started in 2012 to draw attention to the plight of wolves in Wisconsin. Wolves were being hunted with hound dogs, trapped and killed shortly after being taken off the endangered species list 2012. 

Featured image by Jim Brandenburg subject to copyright

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