Intro to Wolf Management & Ecology ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

After a few weeks of preparation, it was finally time to support my first field seminar, Intro to Wolf Management and Ecology.  Since the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, debates relative to this alluring creature have been tireless and complex.  Wolf watchers in the park are enamored by them, ranchers and hunters not so much.

Sunrise at Slough Creek, site of an active wolf den.

I had heard several park employee discussions on the topic of reintroduction of the wolf, namely Doug Smith, project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project, since our arrival to the park.  He has studied wolves for the past 20+ years and still brings the same passion to the topic as he did as a Yellowstone freshman.  I was anxious to hear some fresh views on this subject from our class instructor, Jon Trapp.  Beyond  embracing many of the views presented by Doug, Jon also spoke on the topic of wolf denning, subject of his master’s thesis.

Our classroom time took us through the past couple of decades since reintroduction, how many of the wolves have been collared and tracked, the family dynamics of how they hunt together, and what happens when an alpha member of the pack is killed.  It was most informative and supporting this field seminar added another dimension to my time at the Buffalo Ranch.

Field time at the Slough Creek den

Wolves get a bad rap, some of it deserved, as they do kill some livestock.  No rancher wants to work hard to grow their herd, only to have a predator take from him.  The good news is that when this happens, the rancher is compensated for his loss.

Hunters who share the sentiment that the only good wolf is a dead wolf feel that the elk population has been jeopardized by the reintroduction of the wolf.  It is true that the mainstay of the Yellowstone wolf’s diet is elk; however, statistics have shown that many more elk are taken down by cougars than wolves.  I learned that 85-95% of the time when hunting an elk, the wolf is not successful, and their elk hunting is compensatory, killing weaker elk who were most likely going to die anyway.

Instructor Jon Trapp balanced over an abandoned wolf den

Our field studies were the most exciting, taking us to an area of the park where we could view an active wolf den using spotting scopes.  Watching the pups emerge from the den, tumbling over one another, frolicking in the sunlight, delighted us all.  Jon also took us to one of the first acclimation pens, Rose Creek, where we read the story of the first alpha female to the reintroduced to the park.  On another outing we inspected an abandoned wolf den.

With the wolf’s return to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone has regained its balance of historic mammals and is now described as the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate world.  We now see this region as it was before the Europeans arrived.

Biologists and scientists spend significant time in the field tracking the wolves of Yellowstone, but in the end what matters most is that we carved out another little piece of wildness with their reintroduction.  We need these wild spaces, their coarseness, erratic ebbs and flows, the magic and mystery.

Photo of the white wolf from September 2010, recently shot and killed within Yellowstone NP.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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Meet the Pack ~ International Wolf Center, Ely, MN

Advice from a Wolf ~ Trust your instincts.  Be at home in nature.  Keep your den clean. Stand fur what you believe.  Howl with your friends.  Be a leader.  Pack life with good memories.  ~  Ilan Shamir

Wolves – a most controversial subject, across the ages and around the globe.  And why not, as we were raised to fear this highly intelligent creature, as far back as medieval times.  They have become associated with what we instinctively fear – the dark, light of a full moon in the deep, dark forest, lonely howls.

Image credit - Wikipedia
Image credit – Wikipedia

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, a book many had read to them in their childhood, dates back to the 1700’s, originally published by French author Charles Perrault.  Although the storyline has changed over the years, passed from French, to German, to English hands, one thing has remained constant, the big bad wolf.  

The legend of the werewolf has swirled around since Ancient Greek times, 9th to 6th century BC.  Although each country has its own theory on how one shape-shifts from man to beast, folklore abounds.

Spanning the globe there have been many reports of wolf attacks on humans, with India seeming to have one of the largest problems with this issue today.  The fact remains, however, that the primary food source for this canine is ungulates – horses, cattle, deer, bison, elk.  Experts believe that wolf attacks against humans are the result of a diseased animal, human habituation, a defensive measure when provoked, or when a food supply is not readily available.  Otherwise, the wolf tends to fear man, particularly in North America.

Yellowstone wolf

Our love affair with wolves was born several years ago in Yellowstone National Park, where Terry had the good fortune to assist the wolf biologists in some of their public education seminars.  He was immediately enthralled with the various packs within the park and shared much of what he learned with me.  There was nothing more thrilling back then than to stand with the wolf watchers on a crisp, clear Yellowstone winter morn, watching this magnificent, resourceful wild animal.  Terry was blessed to see them interact as a family unit at the den and watch an entire pack celebrate a successful hunt, their yips and howls reverberating in the cold dawn.  Speak to a rancher surrounding Yellowstone lands and his perspective takes on a whole different light.  Loss of his livelihood, his livestock, is most likely foremost in mind, as well it would be.

The International Wolf Center was the reason for our side trip to Ely, MN.  Their mission is clear, to “educate the public by offering the most up-to-date, accurate wolf information possible”.  They envision a world where wolves co-exist peacefully with humans.  The programs presented at the center by their interns are informative and passionately presented.  The ambassadors at the wolf center are playful, mesmerizing, beautiful.  So without further adieu, let’s meet the pack!

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Six year old Aidan, 136 pounds, is the “alpha male”.  Much more elusive than his mates, he seemed to carry an air about him that clearly spoke of his status in the pack.

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Denali, also six years old, 134 pounds, loved to ham it up for the photographers, often coming to the window for photo ops.   His and Aidan’s lineage goes back to that of the Yellowstone wolves.

Two-year old Boltz, weighing in at 112 pounds, was relaxed when his older siblings weren’t present, but clearly knew his place in the pack when they arrived on the scene.

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Little Luna, two years old and the only female in the pack, is a slim 91 pounds, but we were told she can hold her own when food is presented, often times taking more than her share.  She and Boltz are of the Great Plains sub-species.

If you find yourself near Ely, regardless of your opinion on this beautiful creature, the International Wolf Center is a fascinating place to visit.  Yes, the wolf’s place among humans is a very controversial topic, but I wonder, if we humans cannot embrace tolerance, will we ultimately lose a piece of the wild places?   And speaking of wild places, throw a kayak into the Boundary Waters while you are there.  We did, and loved it!

Impending storm over the boundary waters
Impending storm over the boundary waters