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On the Hunt for Wolf Tracks

A few days ago, volunteers and DNR staff tallied how many wolves populate the Wisconsin landscape. Their preliminary count is more than 800, living in 216 packs. Today, officials will use that information to begin to craft this year’s harvest quota.

By June the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will set its quota for the upcoming wolf hunt season, which will kick off October 15. It will mark Wisconin's second wolf hunt season after the wolf was removed from federal endangered protection.

Credit Susan Bence
Adrian Wydeven documents wolf tracks.

In the meantime, controversy does continue to swirl around the harvesting of wolves. There are lawsuits – one state, another federal – in the air.

Among the scientists and volunteers who have monitored and tracked the predator here is Adrian Wydeven. Over the last two decades, he has led Wisconsin’s wolf recovery program.

He says winter wolf tracking isn't exactly "sexy" work. In his 23 years of survey work, Wydeven says he’s never once seen a wolf during winter tracking.

That’s not to say he hasn’t had plenty of hands-on experience. He’s trapped and radio-collared, and taken on the less glamorous task of collecting the remains of dead wolves. And he recently went looking for evidence of two wolf packs – the Pine Lake and the O’Brien.

Although mid-March is the season, Wydeven says conditions for tracking were optimal. There was a fresh light snow that blanketed the area, and the roadways were mostly free of other “human” activity.

"You see the way they use these roads; you drive enough of the area and you’ll eventually encounter them along these roadways," he says.

Credit Susan Bence

Wydeven says the process is more than just looking for the signature tracks of wolves traversing the landscape. He also looks out to find scat – or wolf poop – that often contain the hair and bones of its prey. The point behind sniffing out all this info, he explains, is to provide as accurate a picture as possible where wolf packs are living, estimate their numbers, and now, how the state’s first wolf hunt affected pack stability.

Another clue wolf clue, Wydeven says, are urination markings, such as RLUs, or "raised leg urination."

"If they're fresh, you can sometimes see them 100 yards down the road," he says. "Not only are we looking for tracks, but because we have these urination patterns, we can say this is an established territory, an area that's being marked, an area that's being patrolled by a pack, so when you see the regular marking, you know you are within a territorial area."

Wydeven has been at this business so long, he says he doesn’t even have to leave the comfort of his truck when deciding if an RLU belongs to a coyote, rather than a wolf.

"Wolves stand 30 inches at the shoulders, so you can expect that on these banks that are probably 20, 25 inches up, that they could spray near the top," he says. "A coyote stands about 20 inches at the shoulder, so they're going to be spraying near the middle of more toward the bottom of those banks."

Wydeven says seeing evidence of deer motion along the way is a promising sign.

"Wolves do travel more broadly than the deer and they travel between the deer yards, so sometimes you can find and place them some distance from deer, but in general the best place to look for wolves are where the deer are," he says.

And as predicted, Wydeven did find a set of crisp tracks right near a set of deer tracks, moving off the snowbank that sauntered right down the middle of the road. Because of the shallow snow, he says he was able to determine there were at least two wolves, because of multiple tracks.

Of course, Wydeven explains tracking is an imperfect science: perceived wolf scat can turn out to be dirty snow, or Alpha male wolf tracks end up belonging to someone's large dog.

But Wydeven says he doesn't get discouraged; rather he waxes philosophical about his search for the Pine Lake pack.

"We found tracks that looks like at least of two older wolf tracks in here, so some evidence of this wolf pack, even though we didn't get a good count on them," he says.

Wydeven maintains all of his data scribbled in detail on an official carnivore track survey. That data includes snow depth and other animal activity along the way – the movement of snowshoe hares and coyotes. Wydeven calls wolf monitoring painstaking detective work.

Another of its elements, done during a later season – involves howling on the part of the tracker.

"That gives you information, you know there' s pack present in this area yet," he says. "It's summertime, they do or they don't have pups, or at least we heard pups with them. If we hear pups with them from a specific location, we know that's it's likely their rendezvous site. Rendezvous sites are normally part of the core part of their territory, so it gives us a more complete picture of that pack and so when we're doing the snow track surveys in the area, knowing, okay, they had a rendezvous site over there and their den was probably over this way, so this is an area where we can anticipate we should be able to find tracks of this pack."

Wydeven says art enters the activity when you howl just enough to determine where and how many wolves are in the pack; but not so much to spook the animal.

Credit Susan Bence

"They're perceiving us as a trespassing wolf and responding to us and more or less telling us to leave, and if this trespassing wolf keeps coming back over and over again, that may cause them to leave and to move away from the area," he says. "The other thing that also happens is if the adults are not with the pups at a time you're howling, you probably caused them to abandon any hunting activity they have, so they're coming back with empty bellies and no food for the pups. So if you did it excessively, you could get to a point where you're compromising their nutritional balance."

Except for a short period early in his career, when Wydeven focused on elk, wolves have dominated his work. He even co wrote a book on its recovery in the Great Lakes region. That chapter in his career seems to be over, however.

With the change in the wolf’s status – from endangered to a member of Wisconsin’s managed wildlife - Wydeven is moving on to a new position as Statewide Forest Habitat Specialist for the DNR, though he remains a member of the wolf advisory committee.

Wydeven's attitude is a philosophical one; even without him on the case, he believes Wisconsin has a solid wolf tracking and monitoring system in place.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.