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NORTHWESTERN WISCONSIN: Wolves return on own terms
By James Gorman
New York Times
03/16/04


Phil Miller flies the single-engine plane in a tight circle at an altitude of about 300 feet, listening on his headset to beeping from a wolf's radio collar.

The animal is somewhere below, in a mix of patchy pine forest and low, sparse brush scattered over a snow-covered swamp. It is a gray day, drizzling and misty, and after the plane circles a line of pines several times, the wolf is still not visible.

Then Miller spots a pair - their coats a peppery mix of gray, black and cinnamon - standing casually under a pine tree, looking for all the world as if they are trying to decide whether it's worth going out in the rain.

If they were really worried about the weather, they might go to the vast Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., only a two-hour drive away - or a 120-mile trot, no great challenge for a wolf. These wolves are not on Arctic tundra or in the precious confines of Yellowstone National Park. They are in Wisconsin, not exactly the suburbs, but not the wilderness either, and they fit a Midwestern stereotype: modest, hardworking, persistent.

WOLVES CAN COPE

In their quiet way they have shown that wolves do not need pristine wilderness to be successful, that they do not necessarily need a highly managed reintroduction program, as used in Yellowstone, and that they can increase their range without stirring conflict among wolf proponents and opponents.

"Once wolves were thought emblematic of wilderness," said Dr. Adrian Treves, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York who has just published an analysis of the conditions that are most likely to bring wolves and people into conflict. But the nearly 350 wolves of Wisconsin, in 80 known packs, have shown that they can cope with people.

"The wolves," Treves said, "have managed to make dens and breed successfully for 25 years on a lot of private land, on county and state forest land, which is heavily, heavily used by recreationalists like snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and hunters. This is the classic case of the quiet recovery of wolves without a big fanfare, without big attention."

He added that because the wolves conducted their own repopulation, public reaction had been largely favorable. No decision was needed to bring them back. They just came back. This sort of resurgence cannot work everywhere, of course, but there are states, like Maine, that have large expanses of private forest land.

REMNANT EXPANDS

In the 1950s, northern Minnesota had a remnant population of a few hundred wolves, Treves said. (A tiny group also survived on Isle Royale, in Michigan's section of Lake Superior.) After the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the protection it afforded, along with some forest regeneration and a change in attitudes, allowed the wolves to start growing in number, and the Minnesota population began spilling across state borders. There are now more than 3,000 wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, with most in Minnesota.

In Wisconsin, they recently reached the central forest section of the state, "the southernmost natural occurrence of the gray wolf in North America," Treves said.

The northwestern corner of the state has a number of packs. Miller flies the wolves, as he puts it, about twice a week, taking off from a small airport here. He and other pilots here and at two other airports keep tabs on radio-collared wolves throughout the state. Their reports go to Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist who has been in charge of the wolf program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for about 10 years.

The day after flying with Miller, I went with Wydeven as he drove slowly around on sandy roads looking for wolf tracks in the same forested areas I had seen from the air the day before.

Every wolf territory in Wisconsin is crossed by at least one road, he said. As the wolves travel, he added, they cross the road sooner or later and leave tracks.

The wolves range from 50 to 100 pounds, smaller than those in Yellowstone and nowhere near the top of the wolf scale, 150 pounds.

The state's plan puts the ideal wolf population at 350. The known population is 327, with eight more on Indian reservations, where state laws do not apply. Last year, the federal government reclassified Wisconsin's wolves as threatened rather than endangered.

The talking stopped when we saw tracks in the sand. These were wolf tracks, not the large dog tracks we had seen earlier.

"If you look at these tracks," he said, "they're more elongated than those other tracks."

He noted that the wolf was not trotting but running, so that both back feet set down at once and then both front feet - a gallop.

"If he's chasing after a deer, that would make sense," Wydeven said.

Stepping into the snow at the side of the road, he added, "It looks like the deer veers off a bit here." The tracks were fresh. "I would say less than a day. I would say a few hours. It could be this morning. There might just be a pair."

DEPREDATIONS

The road is a few miles from a major cattle operation that has claimed significant depredations from wolves each year. Those attacks on livestock are the central problem in any resurgence of predators, and Treves has been studying them.

Most of the problems arise with cattle, although wolves have also killed sheep, turkeys and chickens. The state compensates anyone who has suffered property loss because of endangered species, using money from a voluntary checkoff on income-tax returns and the sale of wolf license plates. The compensation for calves has been based on fall market value, at $602 in 2002.

Wolves have also killed "a large number of hunting dogs," Treves said, and that becomes expensive. In Wisconsin, hunters use highly valued purebred hounds - Walker, bluetick and others - to hunt bear and other animals. Wolves tend to look on these dogs as intruders in their territory.

From 1976 to 1991, wolves killed two dogs. In 1998 alone, they killed 11 and injured four. The payment for a hound has been a maximum of $2,500, although owners have asked for more. If a bear kills a dog that is hunting it, that is simply in the nature of the hunt. If, however, wolves attack the dog as territorial intruders, the hunters must be repaid, perhaps because they are not allowed to kill the wolves.

But in a twist, the largest payment so far has been $48,000 for deer that game-farm operators kept in an enclosure of a few hundred acres. The game farms charge hunters who want to kill trophy deer.

In a paper in the current issue of Conservation Biology, Treves and his colleagues describe a method to analyze the circumstances most likely to lead to wolf depredation, and they predict where the risk of such events will be high. A predictive tool of this sort, he said, is applicable not only to friction between wolves and people, but also to conflicts with elephants, tigers, wild dogs, and to any situation where the interests of people and animals clash.

The study looked at 25 years of information recorded on wolf predation in Wisconsin and Minnesota, a total of 975 incidents. In analyzing the information, Treves paired sites with a high incidence of depredation against others that were similar in most ways to pick out any significant differences.

The highest risk, he said, was "at the colonization front" - the wolves as the colonists for once - where an expanding wolf population brought the animals into contact with people who were unused to coping with wolves. In addition, he said, it is young, inexperienced wolves who colonize new territory, while the older, established packs hang onto the territories they have.

SMART CONTROL

He found that density of deer, the primary prey, drew wolves to an area, and that significant pasture, particularly the interweaving of pasture with wild forest, was also a risk factor. The goal of his research, he said, is to enable officials charged with protecting wolves to know where best to put their efforts at control and education and to develop new ideas for control. For example, the less edge, where pasture and forest meet, the better.

His findings may also lead wildlife managers away from lethal control, which Treves said is inefficient at getting the wolves that are preying on livestock. The more refined the understanding of how wolves and people interact, the better the chances are for keeping the public on the side of the wolves.

The wolves are doing their part to keep their population growing. When Wydeven, the ecologist in charge of Wisconsin's wolf program, was inspecting the tracks in the sandy road, we came on a spot where the road was all scuffed up with tracks.

"They're milling about here," he said.

I asked whether they might be playing.

"They might be, or they might be mating," he replied. "We're still in the breeding season."

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