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Wolves’ Long Journey Home

While the wolf reintroduction debate rages across the country, in Wisconsin the animals are simply reclaiming their rightful place.

The diseases seemed to run their courses. Illegal killing was lessened by increased law enforcement and hunter education. “There were a few mild winters in a row, too, that helped keep the deer population high,” Wydeven says. By 1989, there were more than 30 wolves in the state, 57 by 1994. Biologists set a goal: Reach at least 80 wolves three years in a row, and Wisconsin would have the beginnings of a stable population. In 1995, 83 wolves were counted; in 1996, 99; in 1997, 146. The last DNR census put the “minimum count” at 178 to 184 wolves in 47 packs.

The wolf is back.

“It is quite a success story,” Wydeven says. “By allowing, maybe even helping, wolves to return, it says something about us as people. It shows tolerance. We’ve been able to avoid some of the (negative) stuff they’re dealing with in Yellowstone, and I think one of the reasons is the way the wolves came back-on their own. People see it as a more natural process than us bringing them in and releasing them. That may be why people have been more accepting of it.”

It also says something about the land. “Most people would have thought Wisconsin just wasn’t wild enough to support a wolf population,” Wydeven says. “I guess this tells us we are.”

One of the places still wild enough for wolves is Rainbow Lake Wilderness Area.

A slight breeze whispers in the trees lining Trail 502 as it winds through Chequamegon National Forest and heads deeper into Rainbow Lake Wilderness Area. Ahead of me are Andrea Dabler, Jill Mamayek, Karen Hotopp, and Lindsey Hinson, four members of the Rainbow Lake Pack Study Group from the Wolf Research Team of Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. The program, like the Wisconsin DNR initiative, monitors the state’s wolves, and the four students are here to conduct a howling survey, search for tracks, and collect scat samples.

My reason for being here is less scientific. I’ve watched wolf packs shadow caribou herds in the Canadian Arctic, spied on a wolf pup as it played with a piece of moose hide in Alaska’s Brooks Range, and followed strings of star-shaped wolf tracks across the frozen lakes of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. But in my own home state, the place I’ve hiked and camped most in the past two decades, I haven’t seen sign of a wolf. Now, I want to hear a howl or find a track-something to prove that my home ground, not just Alaska and the West, is wild enough for wolves.

As we weave through wind-tossed birch trees swaying and bent at odd angles, our conversation naturally turns to the wolves and the Wolf Research Team (WRT).

“It’s a big part of the reason I came to Northland,” says Lindsey Hinson. “I remember watching a program on Jane Goodall when I was a kid and telling my mom I was going to be a wildlife tracker. It’s my life’s dream. Here, I get that chance.”

Begun by Dr. Jack Stewart in 1992, the WRT consists of 30 students divided into Pack Study Groups of 3 to 5 members. Each group tracks an assigned pack, searching for signs, listening for howls, gathering data that is then shared with Wydeven and the DNR. “The program has been a real help to us,” Wydeven says. “The more eyes out there in the forest, the better,” he says, “particularly when they have the kind of training Jack gives them.”

Students pay their own way-even buy their own gas-and spend countless hours in the rain and snow and wind tracking animals they may never see. The program is underfunded, demanding, and offers just two college credits. And, it is wildly popular. “I’d like to take credit for it,” Dr. Stewart says of the class’s notoriety, “but it’s the wolves. Students are drawn to the chance to work with these magnificent creatures.”

Andrea Dabler is one of the students. “I love this pack,” she says of the Rainbow Lake wolves. Of the four team members, she has monitored this pack the longest, suffering through much of its long and troubled history. For years, Wolf #223, an alpha male nicknamed Fred, was the star of the program. The collar he wore provided mountains of data.

The first sign of trouble came when another wolf, thin, scraggly, and barely alive, from the same pack was trapped. Nicknamed Jude, the six month old weighed only 10 pounds, a third of what she should have weighed. She was dehydrated, weak, and almost furless due to mange. The chances of Jude surviving in the wild were slim, so contrary to their customary hands-off research style, the WRT took her into captivity.

After 53 days of care from the WRT, Jude was well enough to be released, but the worries were not over. “We had no data on what to expect from returning a wild wolf back to her pack after that long in captivity,” Dr. Stewart says. Despite concerns she might be killed or driven off by other wolves, she was slowly accepted by her old pack.

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