Tracking Wisconsin’s Elusive Gray Wolf

 by Rachel Tilseth, First published in Silent Sports Magazine’s April 2022 issue and reprinted with permission.

 

Photograph of gray wolf courtesy of Al Sherwinski Photography LLC

Every winter, wolf trackers span out across Wisconsin’s northern and central forests to count wolves. As soon as the snow flies, they are on the elusive gray wolf (Canis lupus) trail, sometimes called Timber Wolf. Gray wolves are the largest members of the Canidae family, including coyotes and foxes. 

Wolves can weigh up to 90 pounds and telling tracks apart from a large dog can be tricky. To help make the distinction, Adrian Wydeven, a wolf biologist, said, “A wolf [paw print] is more rectangular in shape, whereas a dog’s is rounder.” 

The latest wolf population estimate was 1,126, before the hunt in February 2021. 

Counting wolves in Wisconsin involves employing the help of dedicated citizen volunteer trackers who search for a diverse array of animals. Trackers focus primarily on carnivores within wolf territories to give scientists a measure of ecosystem health; they must take wolf ecology and wildlife tracking courses to learn species identification by tracks. 

Sara Boles and Adrian Wydeven.

Wife and husband Sarah Boles and Adrian Wydeven have been tracking the gray wolf in northern Wisconsin for decades now. Sarah grew up as an urbanite who found her heart in the northern forest. Adrian led the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wolf Recovery Program from 1990 through 2013. They live just outside Cable, Wisconsin, in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a 1.5-million-acre woodland that cuts across northern Wisconsin. The Cable area boasts the most extensive community-wide, multi-use trail system in the United States, earning the title Charter Trail Town USA by the American Hiking Society. 

In 1995, Sarah became a part-time wildlife technician for the Wisconsin DNR. Although Adrian retired officially in 2015, he remains actively involved in wolf surveys and conservation through the Timber Wolf Alliance and Wisconsin Green Fire. The couple works together to survey gray wolves for the Wisconsin DNR.

“We were drawn to the Cable area,” Adrian said, “because it’s known as a mecca for silent sports enthusiasts.” Sometimes using vehicles, both often use silent sports disciplines, such as hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, to survey for wolves. Adrian’s favorite way to track wolves is by cross-country skiing because it’s efficient at finding which way the wolves are heading. Sometimes Adrian drops Sarah off on a trail along a forest road and she skis to the next road intersection while he follows roads, searching for signs of wolves along the way. He then picks her up at the next trail crossing.

Along with tribal and federal wildlife biologists, DNR staff conduct surveys and have incorporated trained citizen scientists to assist in monitoring wolf populations since 1995. Adrian developed the annual winter tracking survey to offer interested people the opportunity to become involved in the wolf monitoring program. 

In January 2022, I joined Sarah and Adrian on a winter wolf survey in the northern forest. The temperature gauge on my vehicle’s dashboard indicated nine degrees as we entered the forest service road to begin. Heading out, our measurement showed snow cover at 13 to 14 inches in the woods and 3 inches along the road. Sarah showed me the WDNR Tracking App on her smartphone and Adrian showed me his datasheet with key information: Current weather, snow depth, last snowfall, survey block number, wolf pack, and the names of the survey participants. 

Wolf surveyors are taught not to disturb or alter the behavior of wolves when tracking because doing so may cause them to change their movements. “The science behind tracking requires using all your senses,” Sarah said. As an example, she was cross-country skiing a trail a few years ago when she saw a small plane flying low and circling the area around her position. WDNR used airplanes and radio telemetry to count wolves in winter and Sarah happened to be directly underneath, realizing then that wolves were right there. She soon found very fresh tracks but never saw the wolves.

Adrian and Sarah look for signs of wolves by searching for paw prints, urination, scrapings, and scats. Adrian said, “A wolf track without claws would typically be 3.5 to 4.0 inches in length.”

During our survey, it wasn’t long before we stopped and they jumped out onto the road to check for possible signs of wolves. Urination markings by the side of the road were obvious signs of gray wolves. Markings on the sides of snowbanks, called raised leg urination (RLU), are made by the alpha pair. Rusty color in the urine indicated blood and a female going into estrus soon. 

 Wolves mark their range with these signs for several reasons, primarily territorial. January and February typically are prime breeding seasons for wolves. Adrian pointed out that we were between three different wolf pack territories. It wasn’t long before we stopped to examine similar markings on the side of the road. 

“These wolf signs are a tenth of a mile apart all along the side of the road,” Sarah said. She and Adrian make a point to stop just before an intersection to get out and walk carefully to examine for markings and movement patterns. Adrian explained, “Wolves often leave scats in the middle of an intersection to let neighboring wolf packs know their territory border.” He emphasized, “It’s not a good idea to follow wolf tracks long distances from roads in late March or April, to avoid stumbling into and disturbing a wolf den site. Pups are usually born in early or mid-April, but the breeding female will start spending time at the den in late March, preparing for the birth of the pups, and disturbance may cause her to abandon a den site.” Sarah added, “Surveying wolves is a mystery solved best with the help of a two-person tracking team.”

Their history of working as a team was made clear to this observer. They jumped out in perfect unison, one going to the front, the other to the back to check for signs of wolves. “I’ve got two wolves,” Sarah said. Adrian echoed back, “Two here.”

While conducting this wolf survey, they tracked three to four wolves, two dogs, one coyote, two foxes, four fishers, one American marten, and one bobcat along 11.9 miles of forest road between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. We also found paw prints made by a rare American Marten. 

“American Martens are state-endangered mammals,” Adrian said. Both pointed out the area around its tracks, saying that American Martens (Martes americana) like dense conifer forests and hardwood conifer mixes.

In the following video clip, Sarah demonstrates how a bobcat walks.

Another critical skill is learning how the animal you are surveying moves. Sarah demonstrated how a bobcat moves, comparing it to a typical house cat, raising her arms to imitate a catwalk. She said, “The prints in the snow look almost like an interlocking chain.” 

We continued down the forest service road, gathering valuable data, getting in and out of the vehicles many times, and stopping to discuss what we found: Because it looked as if one wolf jumped off the road and into the woods at one point, were the wolves chasing a deer in and out of the forest? Then a few feet down the road, another wolf jumped into the forest, headed towards the first wolf. 

As we traveled the service roads, Sarah and Adrian found one wolf that turned out to be two wolves trotting down the road. Boles pointed out that when wolves walk, they direct-register by putting the back foot into the front footprint. 

 

It was getting late in the day and we were losing the light needed to see wolf tracks. Adrian put on a headlamp and proceeded to check. We and the wolf tracks were now at the end of the forest service road, intersecting with a highway. But for Adrian’s headlamp, the light had disappeared, making it apparent this survey has ended.

Sarah looked at Adrian and pronounced, “Let’s call it.” 

They maintained that there was more to the story here and, when they got back home, they would put the data on a map, hoping to solve the mystery of how many wolves live in the area and where they’ll be heading next. They shared the following survey results with me: We had mostly stayed within the territory of one wolf pack that, based on previous surveys, we determined to consist of at least four wolves. It appeared we had followed the recent movements of 2 to 4 members of this pack for about 9 miles. Two packs might have met along part of the route where there was a lot of intense wolf activity. While impossible to get a good count on the second pack, it was probably a similarly sized pack. A count of 4 wolves would be an average size pack for Wisconsin in mid/late winter, where pack size can range from 2 to 12 wolves.

These expert but learnable surveying techniques allow you to gain precious insight into the mysteries of the wolf and other forest predators and prey, increasing appreciation of our shared forests and trails. If you are interested in participating in the winter wolf tracking survey, contact the DNR at: dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/training.html.

Editor’s Note: Rachel Tilseth is one of the dedicated volunteers described in this story. In this story, she will take you on a winter wolf survey with two other experienced trackers; you’ll learn a brief history of the tracking program as well as about the animals tracked as volunteers spend the day searching for signs of wolves. Rachel is also the writer and founder of “Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin: Ally of the Grey Wolf” and the creator and host of the “People & Wolves Talk Show: We Educate So You Can Advocate.” Email Rachel at wolvesofdouglasco@gmail.com. And see more at www.wolvesofdouglascountywisconsin.com.

Rachel is in the process of making a film, “People & Wolves” a Wisconsin Story Mired in Political Intrigue, and is in the production phase.  To support the film by making a tax-deductible donation through the film’s fiscal Sponsor click here to donate to this project red button.

 

 

The film “People & Wolves” is happy to be a part of Film North. FilmNorth’s mission is to empower artists to tell their stories, launch and sustain successful careers, and advance The North as a leader in the national network of independent filmmakers. We achieve our mission by nurturing a vibrant, diverse community of film and media artists; providing education and resources at every stage of their careers; and celebrating their achievements.

 

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