This is my story of White Eyes, a Wisconsin grey wolf, Alpha Wolf 447.
I believe that nothing happens by mistake. When I became a volunteer Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Winter Wolf tracker in the year 2000 I had no idea of the history behind the tracking block I chose. The tracking block I chose was in Douglas county and that’s where Wisconsin’s Wolf recovery program got its start. It was all due to a young University of Wisconsin Stevens Point student. The following is from their book, Keeper of the Wolves by Richard P. Thiel.
It was 1978, and there had been no resident timber wolves in Wisconsin for twenty years. Still, packs were active in neighboring Minnesota, and there was the occasional rumor from Wisconsin’s northwestern counties of wolf sign or sightings. Had wolves returned on their own to Wisconsin? Dick Thiel, then a college student with a passion for wolves, was determined to find out. Thus begins Keepers of the Wolves, Thiel’s tale of his ten years at the center of efforts to track and protect the recovery of wolves in Northern Wisconsin. Keeper of the Wolves by Richard P Thiel
Like I said, nothing happens by mistake, and when I began tracking a pack of grey wolves in Douglas county Wisconsin, I had no idea of the history behind that county.
I was assigned a tracking block in the year 2000 that had a new alpha female. I set to explore this new territory and spent summers scouting 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 green eyes all framed in white fur. I named her White Eyes, and thus began the relationship between a wolf tracker and a wolf.
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 pack only had around five family members at a time, that’s because it was a small territory, around 24 square miles. Every adult member was needed for the hunt, and the puppies were stashed in a brushy area for safe keeping while the rest of the family was off hunting.
One warm July summer night in 2002, I was about to find out that a wolf’s trust could be broken during a howl survey. 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. I also heard the adults howling a mile or so away.
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 were still very vulnerable. 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.
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.
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.
She was a very tenacious Alpha. She defended her family year after year from bear hunters who ran their dogs through where she kept her pups.
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 lives of grey wolves in Wisconsin.
Rachel Tilseth’s Bio
In 2011 Great Lakes wolves were delisted. Rachel worked to draw attention to the plight of Gray wolves during the three years Wisconsin held wolf hunts. Rachel garnered the attention of the press in an effort to bring public awareness to Wisconsin’s wolf hunt, especially the regulations that allowed dogs to be used to track and trail wolves. Rachel made it known that Wisconsin quite literally throws dogs to wolves. Rachel has put together public events, three film screenings, one film festival, in order to bring education and awareness about Wisconsin’s wolf hunt, and wildlife issues. In 2011 Rachel started a Facebook Page and named it after the county she tracked wolves in; Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin (WODCW). WODCW became known nationally and internationally. Rachel is currently working on series of live-streamed broadcasts call People & Wolves Talk Show in both the USA & Italy. Writing a book about White Eyes a wolf of Douglas county, recounting the individual story of a wolf she got to know.
Rachel worked for over two decades as a volunteer wolf tracker spending her spare time tracking grey wolves in Wisconsin. She is not part of a nonprofit. Instead Rachel works to educate so others can advocate. Rachel believes in the power of citizen grassroots organizing.
Rachel Tilseth is a fine artist, educator, writer and environmentalist. Rachel lives and works in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Rachel earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Art Education in 1992 from UW-Stout, graduating with cum laude honors. Rachel has been an environmentalist since high school. Rachel participated in the first Earth Day in 1971. Later, Rachel participated in the protests of sulfate mines that took place in the early 1990s. Rachel worked with activists John Trudell and Walter Bresette, whom she met at the Protect The Earth Festival near Hayward, Wisconsin. Rachel’s first art teaching job was in Kyle, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1992.
I believe the grey wolf is a part of Wisconsin’s wild legacy. —Rachel Tilseth