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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.

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Listen.From somewhere to the north, beyond the ring of birch trees where we are camped close to the heart of Rainbow Lake Wilderness, a chorus of howls is rising in the night sky. The voices swirl up into the stars like sparks from our campfire. It is a complex chorus-sharp barks and yips mixed with deep, richer strains-that echoes over the lake. The forest rings with the sound. I close my eyes and smile. I’ve waited most of my life to hear this choir. Yet, this isn’t Yellowstone or Alaska. This is Wisconsin, and out there in the darkness there are wolves, howling.

Once, the sound of wolf howls echoed all across Wisconsin-from the oak prairies of the southwestern part of the state to the deep piney Northwoods. Biologists estimate there were as many as 5,000 wolves in the state in the early 1800s. But that was then. The story from there is all too familiar-tales of wolf packs attacking sleighs hauling loads of beef, of lumberjacks wildly swinging axes to keep wolves at bay, hunters claiming wolves were killing all the deer. Every tale fueled a public outcry to rid the state of “these white-teethed howlers.”

And it worked. Like a dark shadow creeping over the state from south to north, the anti-wolf forces took their toll. Bounties, paid out as early as 1839, helped rid the southwest of wolves by the early 1880s and central Wisconsin by 1914. In the 1920s, there were only about 200 left, mostly in the north. The last wolf bounty was paid in 1956, and the program halted a year later, not out of any growing love for the animal but because it was thought there were too few left to warrant the paperwork.

The last documented Wisconsin wolf was hit by a car, then bludgeoned to death with a tire iron, in January 1958. The wolf was officially gone. The woods were silenced.

Fifteen years later, the rumors started, based on quick, shadowy glimpses by hikers, loggers, and hunters. Finally, in 1975, a decade and a half after they were officially proclaimed vanquished in the state, wolves were once again confirmed in Wisconsin.

It was nothing fancy. In Yellowstone, bringing back wolves required a multimillion dollar relocation project, complete with helicopters whisking whole wolf packs out of Canada. In the Southwest, captive Mexican Gray wolves were released amid speeches and in the presence of the Secretary of the Interior.

In Wisconsin, the wolves simply walked back. With the number of wolves in Minnesota growing under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, dispersing wolves began ranging farther and farther afield, searching for unclaimed territory. Drifting as silently as mist, they moved east, under cover of the deep woods. Sometime in the mid-1970s, they entered Wisconsin. Here they found wilderness, deer, and no other wolves to challenge them. They began to settle in.

“It was pretty shaky in the beginning,” says Adrian Wydeven, who heads the wolf program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Wolf numbers stayed low-as few as 15 animals in the mid-1980s.” They suffered from mange, canine parvovirus, and parasites. Cars hit some, others were shot by people still harboring vestiges of hate.

But the wolves kept coming.

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.

But, in the summer of 1996, things started to unravel. Fred’s signal disappeared and he was never found. His mate, the Alpha female, was found dead along a roadway, apparently hit by a car. Then, in the winter of 1997, Jude’s collar began giving off the “mortality signal” that alerts researchers when an animal hasn’t moved for an extended time. She was eventually found near her den, dead and pregnant with a litter of pups.

“It was a tough loss,” Dr. Stewart says. “You try to keep some scientific objectivity with these wolves and not develop a relationship that’s too personal, but sometimes that’s all but impossible.”

With no radio-collared animal in the pack, the Rainbow Lake wolves could not be located. For more than a year, the study group’s howls in the night went unanswered. Their searches for wolf sign turned up nothing. It seemed like the pack had vanished.

Then, a month ago, out on a field survey, Andrea found a track. A few weeks later, Lindsey and Karen got an even bigger surprise. “It was our second howl,” Lindsey says as we sit on the edge of Anderson Lake, the water so still the few clouds reflect perfectly on its surface. “We tried one howl at midnight but got no response, as usual. Then we tried again a little later.” It was 12:26 a.m., according to their field notes. “I was just starting my howl when the wolves cut me off. It started with yips and barks, like young wolves. Then the adults came in. They were all doing the chorus thing.”

“We stood there in complete awe,” Karen says, her eyes wide even now with the memory of what, for both of them, was their first experience with wild, howling wolves. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing.”

“At first, it was awesome, but after a while, it struck me,” Lindsey says. “There we were, pretending to be wolves in their territory, and they were talking back, telling us, basically, to get out. We were so scared, you can hardly read our survey notes-our hands were shaking so bad.”

“It made me feel hopeful again,” Andrea says of the renewed contact with the pack, “being there in the beginning on all those nights when there was nothing, no signs at all and now having them start to come back again.”

After they finish the story, we sit in silence, straining to hear anything that might be a howl or the scrape of a claw against stone. There is only an owl calling from across the lake and the sudden slap of a beaver’s tail so close it makes us jump and then laugh.

The plan is to wait until midnight, when the woods are still and the wolves most active, then begin our howl survey. We will hike the trails by moonlight, trying several different locations. Although no one wants to admit it, it is unlikely we will hear a response. Wolves travel widely and could be miles away tonight, or they could be close and choose not to answer. Only about one in 10 howlings brings a response.

As we wait for dark, we take a sunset hike out of camp. Rainbow Lake Wilderness is small, just 6,583 acres of pine, oak, and birch, spangled with a dozen or so small lakes. A 6-mile stretch of the Northcountry Trail cuts through its center. I’ve hiked here several times-years ago when there were no wolves in the state and again, more recently, when there were just rumors of a pack. As we hike, the light softening to a pale orange on the birch trees, I wonder if the place should somehow seem wilder to me now that there could be wolves. “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves,” Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac.

The presence of wolves gives the land a raw edge, a sharpness. It is not just howls or the flash of eyes by firelight. It is the possibility of rounding a bend in the trail and finding fresh tracks in the mud or catching a glimpse quick as a shooting star of something furred and graceful and gone. It is the feeling that

the forest has eyes, that there is still a little wildness left in the place. The presence of wolves gives the land a pulse and I can feel it in my own.

Back at camp, we sit in the dark, talking softly about where we will go to try our howl, laughing about getting lost in the dark and wandering through the trees all night. Lindsey decides to roll out her sleeping bag, and Andrea heads for a lakeside log to sip her cup of tea. I struggle with my camera as a three-quarter moon glows silver-white on the bark of the birch trees. It is then that something wonderful happens.

The wolves start howling.

At first, we keep talking, as if unwilling to admit this could be happening. This is not the way we planned it. We haven’t howled yet. We don’t have our recorder running or the parabolic microphone set up. No one has their field notes handy.

The wolves don’t care.

It is just the way Lindsey and Karen described it: higher-pitched yips and barks of younger wolves in front and the low, bass howls of the adults somewhere farther off. It is a sound from deep in the throat, low and round, rising like the moon. I close my eyes. The howls seem to be coming from everywhere at once, as if the whole forest has reared back and is howling to the sky.

The hairs on my neck begin to rise, and not just from the thrill of the sound. Listening, eyes closed in the dark, I think of the way the wolves came back to Wisconsin without our help, and I realize I am hearing not just wolves but living, breathing, howling proof that something wild is still working in these northern forests, that the deep river of nature still flows here. There are wolves out there howling, howling in the Wisconsin night.

For information on the Wolf Research Team, contact Dr. Jack Stewart, Northland College, Ashland, WI 54806; (715) 682-1284;


Friends Of The Wolf

The wolf has become the symbol of all things wild, and despite a few success stories, there are still plenty of issues to be addressed-reintroduction, hunting and trapping, compensation for depredation, and Endangered Species status, to name a few. Here’s where to get the information you need to make your voice heard:

Defenders of Wildlife, 1101 14th St. NW, Ste. 1400, Washington, DC 20005; (202) 682-9400;

Friends of the Wolf-BC, P.O. Box 2983, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B 3X4; (604) 290-9256;

Gray Wolf Recovery Status Report,

(information available only online)

International Wolf Center, 1396 Highway 69, Ely, MN 55731;

(218) 365-4695;

Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Project, (information available only online)

Timber Wolf Alliance, Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, Northland College, Ashland, WI 54806; (715) 682-1490;

Timber Wolf Information Network, Waupaca Field Station, E110 Emmons Creek Rd., Waupaca, WI 54981;

Wolf Awareness, Inc., 910 15th St., Canmore, AL, Canada, T1W 1X3; (403) 678-9633;

Wolf Song of Alaska, P.O. Box 110309, Anchorage, AK 99511;

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