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Creature Feature: Gray Wolves At Voyageurs National Park
Editor's note: Gray wolves are fairly well-known to be loping about Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, and Isle Royale national parks. But they're also roaming the forests of Voyageurs National Park. The Voyageurs National Park Association recently ran a question-and-answer piece on the park's wolves featuring Steve Windels, the park's terrestrial ecologist, and we're happy to rerun the story.
What types of wolves are found within Voyageurs National Park?
Gray wolves (Canis lupus), also known as timber wolves, have been present in the Voyageurs National Park area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In fact, northern Minnesota, including Voyageurs, was part of the only place in the lower 48 states where wolves were not extirpated in the 20th Century from human activities. The genetics of wolves in this part of the country is confusing and up for debate, with some wolves showing evidence of historic hybridization with coyotes.
How many wolf packs do you estimate are in the park today? How big are the packs?
The number of wolf packs that utilize parts of Voyageurs National Park is likely between 5-9 packs based on previous research and monitoring. The number and size of packs at present will be determined from the newly initiated research effort.
How long have they been studied in the park and how has the population changed over time?
Glen Cole began the first population studies of wolves in the park not long after the park’s establishment in 1975. Peter Gogan was then hired as the park’s research wildlife biologist to study wolf-moose-deer interactions in 1987, which he continued until he left in 1992. Another population estimate was made by Rolf Peterson and student Jen Fox in 1999-2001. Two other monitoring efforts were conducted in 2005 and 2008 to coincide with statewide monitoring efforts. During this period, wolf numbers have fluctuated from a low of 23 to a high of 53 in mid-winter. However, most years the population has remained between 30 and 50 wolves.
You just completed a wolf study capture – how do you capture them and what is it like?
In the winter time, wolves can be captured by darting from a helicopter. We tried to do that in March 2012 but a lack of snow hindered our efforts. In October 2012, we conducted foothold trapping using modified steel foothold traps. We captured 6 wolves in about 15 days of trapping. We outfitted two older females (>4 years) and one 2-year male with GPS collars. Two other yearling females also received standard VHF collars. We also caught one female pup that was ear tagged and released without a collar.
How many more wolves will you try to collar this year?
This is the first effort of a multi-year project. Our goal is to have at least one GPS collar in each pack each year, with additional animals collared on an opportunistic basis.
What are you studying? What information do you hope to gather from the GPS collars?
GPS collars offer many advantages over the traditional VHF radiocollars that had to be actively located by car, boat, or aircraft. The current collars take GPS locations (accurate to about 10 meters [30 feet]) every 3 or 4 hours everyday for about 15 months. Some of these locations are transmitted back to us in near real-time via satellite such that we can track movements of individuals wolves on a daily or weekly basis. This allows us to track a wolf when it leaves the park (which some younger wolves occasionally do when they disperse) or to quickly locate a wolf that dies from natural or human-related causes. The GPS collars also allow us to better understand current wolf pack boundaries and how wolves may be interacting with moose (who also have GPS collars) and other prey species like beavers and deer.
What additional resources would enhance your ability to study this species?
The primary costs associated with this study will be related to collaring and tracking wolves. GPS collars are relatively expensive ($2500-4000/ea) but really provide the most efficient way to understand wolf behavior and demography. The satellite data acquisition also has some costs associated with it, in the range of $50-200 per animal per month, depending on the amount of data that is transferred. Kind of like a cell phone in some ways (especially since some collars use cell phone technology to transmit data!).
How do you partner with other wolf studies in the state?
The current wolf research and monitoring is in collaboration with Ron Moen, University of Minnesota-Duluth. He is also collaborating with us on the current moose project. Dave Mech and other area wolf researchers have generously donated a few new and used GPS collars to get our study going. We also consult frequently with other wolf researchers in the state about capture and collaring techniques, etc. We plan to share data with the Minnesota DNR to assist in their statewide population estimate.
What has been your most interesting encounter with a wolf?
I’ve seen them from the plane over the years, which is always fun. I’ve seen them more closely from snowmobile or car on occasion. We did have a wolf come investigate us while we were setting traps in an area last month. It made me appreciate how acclimated wolves have become to people in the park.
What do you find wolves in the park eat?
Previous studies at VNP showed that wolves primarily eat white-tailed deer, maybe as much as 80% of their diet in some seasons. They also eat beavers (especially in the spring) and moose. We are currently working with Ron Moen, NRRI to learn more about wolf diets throughout moose range.
How do you tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote?
The primary way to tell them apart is by size, with most adult wolves in the 50-80 lb range. Coyotes are generally much smaller, weighing less than 30 lbs. Coyotes have bushy, thick tail which they generally hold lower to the ground. Coyotes also have short snouts and pointer ears than a wolf.
Have you witnessed any interesting pack dynamics?
Not yet! Ask me again in a year!
What should a park visitor do if they encounter a wolf?
Enjoy the moment! Seeing wolves in the wild is a rare treat, even with the relatively high densities of wolves we have in Minnesota. There have been only a few examples of healthy, unhabituated wolves attacking humans in North American over the last 200 years. If you do feel that you are threatened by a wolf, stand up tall and make lots of noise. The wolf will likely take off in the opposite direction.
Is there a way someone can volunteer as part of the wolf study?
Not right now but perhaps in the future. Depending on where this study leads, there may be opportunities to search for wolf scats for diet analysis or look for wolf kills. The remote, roadless nature of Voyageurs does make coordinating volunteer field work difficult, though.
Are there any online resources to learn more about wolves in the US and current issues affecting them?
The US Fish & Wildlife Service has a great website to learn about wolves in the Western Great Lakes States (including MN) http://www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf/. The International Wolf Center in Ely, MN also has a great website about wolf ecology, history, and management www.wolf.org.
How will Minnesota’s wolf hunt affect wolves that use Voyageurs National Park?
The wolf hunt that started on November 3, 2012, will be the first one in more than 40 years! In many ways, the removal of wolves from the Federal Endangered Species Act and the return of management authority to the states should be celebrated as a rare success story in endangered species management. Wolves are incredibly resilient creatures when properly managed, i.e., when they aren’t subjected to widespread poisoning or other systematic extermination programs as happened throughout many parts of North America up until 1974 when they were placed on the Endangered Species List.
Hunting of wildlife has been prohibited in most National Parks since the creation of the National Park Service. At the time, the restriction on hunting was meant to create protected areas where wildlife species could thrive in a natural state, often while their populations were greatly reduced in areas outside the parks because of overharvest or habitat destruction. Fortunately, the wolf is doing very well throughout northern Minnesota and the proposed hunt will have minimal impacts to the total wolf population in the state. We don’t expect that wolf harvest at the current levels outside of the park will have a major or long-term impact on wolf densities within the Park. We anticipate that some wolves that use parts of Voyageurs National Park will be harvested every year as part of the legal harvest season. Hunting and trapping of wolves has always been legal in Ontario and wolves that move from Voyageurs National Park into Ontario are likewise subjected to harvest. Wolves that are exposed to hunting and trapping in Minnesota may also start to lose some of their fear of humans and some change in wolf behavior is possible. We likewise anticipate that removal of individual wolves from packs may cause some packs to fragment or adjust boundaries, though other wolf packs will likely fill the void. As long as food resources like white-tailed deer and beaver remain high within the park, wolf densities will also remain high. Our focus now is to monitor the population and to better understand how forces such as hunting acting outside of the park boundaries may be affecting wildlife species or ecological processes within the park boundaries.