Monday, May 4, 2015

The (Almost) Grand Slam


There is a “Grand Slam” in nearly every sport imaginable and in Great Lakes fishing, anglers rarely score one. A Coho salmon, a King, Brown Trout, Steelhead and a Lake Trout. Five species- a tough spread of fish to put in the box on one outing considering their varied lake habitat. Most of the year, it would be nearly impossible. Spring does offer a limited window of opportunity-cold waters warm and many great lakes fish move nearer to shore than where they normally haunt. If a big water fisherman wets lines on just the right day, it could happen. For my fishing partners and captain, we almost did. Almost.

Good friend and charter captain Kris Davis of Northfork Sportfishing knows how elusive the grand slam can be. I try to make a couple trips down to the Kenosha marina, where Northfork is based. He's hunted down great lakes fish everywhere from Ashland to Keewaunee to southern Lake Michigan. His crew consists of Uncle Dan Davis and kids Megan and Blake-they're fisher-kids, born into the sport. I'm lucky enough to be invited to join them and I mark early May on my calendar for the coho run. We've had exceedingly good luck over the years out of the Kenosha port and the waters north and south of there.

Arriving early in the morning, Kris had the boat ready and Uncle Dan started in with jokes that had the kids eyes rolling. A prettier sunrise you won't find and glass flat water greeted us as we slipped the bounds of the break wall. My friend John Merreck joined us-a consulate inland fisherman, who loves to dabble in this big lake thing from time to time.

The report from Kris centered around slow action so far this season. He traded a first-ice-out smaller boat for the “Corkscrew,” a Luhrs 290, Northfork's usual fishing rig and one I can attest to being a perfect boat for the job. Most of the charter captain's chatter indicated the big coho run hadn't started-inconsistent weather perhaps was the culprit. Kris was confident we'd get something and predicted (as it turned out, rightly) that we'd have a mixed bag. Boats had been bringing in a few of the small salmon, a brown here and there and even a laker, which is unusual at this time of year in near shore angling.

Spring fishing usually means shallower depths and we motored out less than a mile off shore. Other fishermen had the same plan and near “the bubbler” ( Kenosha's warm water discharge) it looked like a parking lot. The water here ran 25-40 feet and had temps of 46-49 degrees. Finding exactly what depth and temps the fish liked was Kris' challenge and one he's exceedingly good at. 
Kenosha Harbor

“BING” “Fish on!” Even before we had a third of the gear down, John was on a pole cranking in a nice fish. A big 8 pound brown-perfect start to the day. When a fish is on, it's a team effort-a net is grabbed, planer board removed and who ever is battling the fish given room while the captain keeps the boat on course. Having the first fish “in the box” so early made us all pretty optimistic.

Hours passed by and the number of boats staying on the water dwindled. Kris kept the boat further out hunting for that subtle difference in water temperature where we seemed to pick up a fish once and a while. The radio talk was lamenting a lack of action by the other captains- “crickets” as they say. We kept at it and were rewarded with a nice 14# king, which fired up the boat and crew. A few more average sized cohos were boated and a real nice one....turned out to be a steelhead. Hmmmm, that's four species onboard, and thoughts of the grand slam surfaced-we'd just need that “pretty one” (A laker as the fleet calls 'em).

It was not to be-we'd miss that fifth species but not for lack of effort. For much of the day Kris had a full pull going-15 lines in the water, from 35' down to just below the surface. Downriggers, dipsy divers and the 8 little soldiers (planer boards) all trying to coax a bite. By afternoon, the Corkscrew was about the last boat on the water and we kept a few lines in all the way through the harbor entrance, just in case.

That elusive last ditch fish never took the bait so to speak, and the grand slam would be safe for another day. No matter-we felt pretty good about the excursion compared to most of the other fishermen. It was slow, but we'd put 8 in the cooler and would have great meals ahead. For John and I, who don't get on big water very often, just being out there was reward enough-as I commented when we slid through the morning water, “This pretty much doesn't suck.” I know, not very eloquent, but in the warming colors of the sunrise and cool air coming from the cold water the Corkscrew slipped through, everyone nodded in agreement.

For more information: Northfork Sport Fishing,

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Just Ride

This spring exploded out of the door just 2 days after snowcover welcomed snowshoes and skis in early March. Pow! It arrived. Sure, we had a few stubborn snows after that, but in truth, we knew spring was winning the good fight. As such, any open mountain bike trail in the state is going gang busters and Levis Mound, ( one of the first, has had 3 weekends of packed parking lots. Not that it matters, with 25 miles of singletrack, riders spread out quickly.

It seems that early season also brings out mountain bike enthusiasts of all types, shapes and sizes. Some maybe with shiny new rides, others with solely a resolution to just ride more often and this is their start. It makes for interesting people watching post ride outside the chalet. My little gang of trail building friends are no different. Some of them like the latest greatest full suspension rig- sporting gram saving carbon and Ti doo-dads, and others just clip into last years dirt caked mongrel steel steed.

Relaxing in old camp chairs, we sip our beverages and conversation moves back and forth between the next new wheel size (“28.2” wheels-they'll be awesome and I'll be killin it!”) and lamenting the poor souls lifting old school 26” bikes from their racks. “Those look so tiny” -commenting on the bikes that were perfectly fine for all of us a few short years ago. Yeah, they still do work you know.

My friend Dan is on the old school-steel-is-real end of the spectrum. He's built up a rare “69er” which you'd be hard pressed to see at any trail head, rides a single speed 29+ Krampus and a fatbike. He loves to give people grief anytime the weight weeny conversation gets too serious. I like that. He'll tirelessly needle folks anytime the chatter is more about the bike than the ride. Sure-we all like the hardware, but it shouldn't come at the cost of why we're out there in the first place. Sometimes we need reminders of that.

I like riding with Dan- he's fit and can hammer with the fast dudes who power up and down the Levis trails, but he keeps it all in perspective and I'll join him for a no-drop-just-ride-along as well. I'm not in the jet set racer mode mentality any longer, so I appreciate going my own pace and riding within my ability-fitness or skill wise. I can use the excuse that I want to enjoy the time outdoors “just riding” (and that is true) but to be honest, I wish I still had the horsepower to keep up. It is what it is. “Next month I'll be in better shape. Dan's favorite prevailing philosophy may be “Just ride and shut up.” That, and don't take yourself too seriously- “pass the flask dude.”

The conglomeration of bikes continued to stream past us in the parking lot. An old Klein Mantra, a brown 26” Schwinn High Sierra, four bar linkage suspension bikes, a 750B and enough single speeders to keep my quads quivering. Strutting riders in their flashy new 2015 kits walk by all serious, others in tattered shorts and t-shirts with shin guards not so much. Some pay their trail fee others sadly “forget.” The no helmet people are the most worrisome-they, if anyone, need the protection the most. They all continue to parade by, click in and head out the trailhead entrance. It's all good.

It's dirt on your legs that is more important than the latest greatest gizmo and what bike you're on seems to disappear once the pedals are spinning. While Dan loves his steel, I'm not a frame material zealot-I've had them all and am on a bamboo bike at the moment for gods sake! They all worked and got me out the door pedaling. Earlier in the day, my little group sported a fatbike, a couple single speeds, a pair of 29+, a full zoot FS and a lightweight 29er hardtail. Quite an array. We stopped every once and a while, waited, chatted it up, viewed the scenery and kept the Strava feeds mostly at bay. That's riding in my book.

The best bikes aren’t at the extreme ends of the functionality spectrum, so specialized that they’re a bike-length away from dysfunctionality. The best ones are boring jacks-of-many-trades, and you stretch them to their limits with skill and experience.” ― Grant Petersen

I'll admit-back in the race days there was a new bike in the garage every year and any new shiny thing had to be hung on it. I followed the sport and it's iterations constantly. Cost was almost no object and I figured I needed all of that to make me a better cyclist. Those folks, like my old self, will always be there, and I was knee deep in it. Nothing wrong with all that per se, but in hind sight, it didn't make the ride any better.

It seems, as really has always been the case, the best rides are ones with no agenda, no attitude and they unfold with no regard to the clock or a distance travelled. Legs can burn or not, wheels can roll solo or with others, and training logs are forgotten or not even considered. Maybe it's my age, my wisdom (ha) or maybe it's just an appreciation of how lucky I am to be doing this at all. Just ride.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Opening Day

It's known as the winter that wasn't, but was. Cold temps, lack of snow, but also no melting the whole season. For winter fat bike riders it was great. That said, there is a longing this time of year to get knobbie tires on dirt-real dirt on real trails.

Opening day at the trailhead is like giddy kids in toyland. Every rider and bike of every size and shape squeezes into any remaining parking slot. Such was the case at Levis Mound Trail this past weekend-Opening day in southern Clark County. Levis is blessed and cursed to have very light sandy soils, and just 2 weeks ago we were on packed snow-what a difference a week or two of warm weather makes.

Typically, the trail shuts down in March or April to allow spring thaw to allow a drying period. There are no hard opening and closing dates-Mother Nature dictates that. This year, with minimal snow cover, the singletrack was ridable much quicker than expected. With social media and web sites announcing trail conditions, it's possible to inform the riding public on a short timeline. They were ready.

The Levis Mound Facebook page had constant inquiries about as soon as the last snowflake disappeared. Patience...difficult for some-especially the non-fatbike crowd who haven't turned a pedal all winter. Our scouts and volunteer trail builders started in almost immediately checking the status of the quickly drying trail and digging dirt for re-routes. Not that there really was pressure to have maintenance and re-routes done by the opener, but when you have help-one wants to take advantage of it. Grub hoes were slinging in ernest.

Once the call was made to open her up-word spread like wildfire. Riders from all over the midwest posted on the websites-Levis was possibly the first trail open to riding for the 2015 season. A small hiccup of snow showed up a few days before, but melted and still allowed for good riding. Some north facing trails clung to snowcover a bit longer and riders on fatbikes held an advantage, giving the illusion of multi-season riding in one day. The recent trail work was welcomed and riders who made the trip to West Central Wisconsin, got their money's worth-long rides and frequent stops at scenic vistas-no shortage of them here.

As a trail builder here for 30 odd years, and head instigator of a sorts, it was a blast to be out riding by myself-stopping to chat with others and snapping as many photos as I could. A friendlier crowd of bikers you won't find. Luckily Levis has an extensive 25 mile network of singletrack, so even though there were a lot of riders-they tend to spread out and you're left feeling you have the place to yourself.

Post ride was time for a beverage or two and chatting with visitors-some who have been here before- others, like a pilot/rider from Appleton, set a small bush plane in a farm field down the road, changed into riding gear and had a wonderful day on the trail. Departing late in the day-he did a fly over and wing wag to the trailhead crew below.

Just like in baseball-opening day is a highly anticipated event and getting dirt under the tires signals the start of a new season. Weather is fickle, and within 24 hours, the trail was covered in freezing rain and sleet, but she'll bounce back quickly and mountain bike riders will return. “You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen. - Joe DiMaggio.

I totally agree.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ice “Caves” of Wedges Creek

Snowshoeing cures the cold. That biting cheek and nose burning cold doubled down by even the faintest breeze. The day wasn't a wind that just rattles the remaining oak leaves of late winter, but rather one that needed to be respected and prepared for. Wind chills generally seem overblown by TV forecasters and playground supervisors. “Freezing skin in five seconds” and all that hyperbole-just dress right has always been my thought.

Cross country skiing and fatbiking tend to fill my winter schedule, but when the really cold drops in for a visit, I pull out the snowshoes. Moving slower and working hard through deep snow warm the body quickly-if anything, overdressing is a problem. A wicking layer and a shell to cut that wind is usually adequate to keep one comfortable in very minus zero temps. Add a thin layer for every sub 10 degrees and you're set.

It's now March and winter is quickly waining with 40s expected next week. The season wasn't quite done yet and would hit us with a couple more days of just single digits. Fresh snow had fallen and I had the urge to explore a new area by snowshoe and see what other living things had been up to.

Wedges Creek in south west Clark County meanders for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River south west of Neillsville. It's nearby and I've managed to canoe and fatbike and snowshoe different stretches of it from time to time. Lately, with the cold temps sticking around, the lab and I tackled a few yet undiscovered sections-unknown to us anyway.

Wedges flows with tannin stained water, and moves constantly even in the harshest winters. Caution is the word of the day and snow covered ice hides all too thin spots, which from time to time the dog and my 'shoes exposed. After a while, one can read the surface of the creek- a slight bow or rise in the ice means it's hollow underneath and water has eroded the strength of the frozen sheet. Plunk! A foot would break through-both mine and Mollys when we didn't decipher the sign correctly. It's more an inconvenience than anything, ice instantly freezing to the webbing in the snowshoe weighing it down. We're not in danger, for the water is shallow and the truck not too far distant. A walking stick probing suspicious spots usually sounds the alarm when the tone of the ice changes. We learned quickly.

The “creek,” actually a small river at this midpoint, has carved some beautiful sandstone formations which reach high above the opposite flood plain. Each curve in its course usually leaves a tall rocky bank on one side and a low sandy snow covered beach on the other. Higher water earlier this winter left foot thick “ice sheets” cracked and strewn at crazy angles on the shore. The cliff sides sprout ice formations, similar to their famous cousins in the Apostle Islands to the far north. Not exactly “ice caves” but there are places with frozen formations not only clinging to fissures in the rock, but also clutching the “ceilings” of undercuts along the shore. Gold stained colors flow still-frozen in the ice and coloring the deposits unexpectedly in this white winter world.

Care is taken as we approach each outcropping for usually the gurgling flow of the stream beneath is loudest on these banks. The dog seems to sense this and is wary for she's been in the drink more times than I. Water working its way from deep within the sandstone expands when solid and at times breaks the fragile surface, crumbling it below. The hues are wonderful-especially contrasted with the snow and the somehow surviving microscopic plant life-tiny green ferns with a foothold on sliver ledges here and there.

We work on way downstream late in the day, finding no new animal sign, just faded tracks wandering from bank to bank. Although the days are noticeably longer, the sun is low now casting even warmer tones on the shoreline and long shadows on the white blanket we tread. Time to climb up and out of this minor canyon in the county forest. Sapling oaks offer handholds and the snowshoe cleats dig deeply up the steep hillside. Soon a small deer trail we're ascending delivers us to the top. From this vantage point the amber sunset fills the creek bed below painting a soft tepid glow on the rock faces. This is a good place to be and I don't notice the cold-forgotten completely while traversing the solid river below. The wind and sun are soon to be at our back, helping guide us thru thick slashings to the pickup a mile or so away. We'd be out before the colors in the western sky fade and would watch over the other shoulder the full moon rising. A moment was taken to look both ways before unstrapping the 'shoes and gesturing the lab into the truck. Yes, snowshoeing has tamed the cold.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wolf Ecology

Dick Thiel-Field Study
The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.-Barry Commoner

If anything was learned at a recent TWIN wolf ecology workshop, it was that-everything is connected-Including... the role of the wolf in our environment. TWIN (Timber Wolf Information Network) is based in Central Wisconsin, and focuses on science-based educational outreach, conveyed through wolf ecology workshops presented each winter. The session I attended was held at the Beaver Creek Nature Preserve near Fall Creek.

The workshop was a great learning experience for anyone interested in this species. TWIN instructors Scott and Dick Thiel and Beverly Paulan did an excellent job in presenting information in a very scientific and factual way. Attendees varied in background from very pro-wolf to those of us who are trackers and want to delve deeper into what this creature is about and its place in our natural world.

In presenting the historical view, Wisconsin was a much different place and supported many more species in the past. Woodland caribou (extirpated by 1910), American Bison (1832), Elk (1868), Cougar, Lynx and Wolverine, all were common here. Of course bear, wolves and deer also inhabited the state, which was composed of oak savannah (prairie) in the south-west half and boreal forest and hardwoods in the north.

To understand the wolf now, we have to comprehend its past. By 1900, Wisconsin was in the midst of ecological devastation. Europeans moving into the Upper Midwest wiped out the white pine at first followed by the remaining timber. Expanding towns and cities along with farming changed forever the landscape of the state. Market hunting eliminated entire species and any animal deemed as direct completion to man were persecuted. Bounties were placed on most predators including the Grey Wolf, which was successfully erased as a species here by the 1950s. Ecologically, it was not understood at the time what role large predators have in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Frontier mythology and tall tales also played into this extirpation.

In trying to fathom the wolf in context of modern culture, TWIN member Scott Thiel also included an extensive natural history component in its workshop. Although I'm familiar with a basic knowledge of large carnivores, including wolves, the presentation dove deeply into where they evolved from, their genetic make up, and how climate changes forced animals to develop differently depending on where they lived and migrated. A robust species, the Dire wolf, once roamed much of North America and became extinct around 10,000 ago. Other canis family members still remain, though some are truly threatened or endangered. Coyotes are very common and thriving, while the Grey Wolf (Timber Wolf) has gained foot holds were humans have allowed it to do so. Lycaon (Eastern Wolf) survives only in Algonquin Provincial park in Canada, while very small numbers of Red and Mexican Wolf attempt a comeback in North Carolina and Arizona respectively. There seems little optimism either of those species will successfully recover.

Biologically, the wolf is designed to be effect at taking down ungulates (hoofed animals) with whitetail deer being the primary prey in Wisconsin-though beaver can also comprise a significant food source. Success of the species relies heavily of it's unique social configuration, unique among all large predators. Jodi Picoult perhaps describes it best: “I woke up one morning thinking about wolves and realized that wolf packs function as families. Everyone has a role, and if you act within the parameters of your role, the whole pack succeeds, and when that falls apart, so does the pack.”

The family structure, or pack, typically is made up of 2 or more animals, with 3-4 being the average in Wisconsin. There is a strict hierarchy- the alpha pair, another related adult or 2 and any surviving pups the most common group. The average lifespan is 2.2 years old (if one includes pups) or 4-8 not factoring in the high mortality of young of the year. Starvation is the leading cause of death for pups who are born in May. In summer, young are moved to rendezvous sites and by fall they accompany the pack. Wolves in Wisconsin average a 25% mortality rate each year.

The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” -Rudyard Kipling

Territories average about six by six miles in Wisconsin. A pack's home turf is based on the type of prey, its abundance and weather. Typically, range and pack size are much larger to the west and north where prey is larger. As with humans, pack territories are defended against outsiders-a “fence” of scent (scat and urination) delineates boundaries and wolves, with a hyper sense of smell, respect each packs home. Besides communicating with smell-howling can also define a territory and aids in communication between pack members.

Of all the information I learned, the accuracy of the Wisconsin monitoring program is most remarkable. Paulan, a DNR pilot, presented information on how the DNR conducts surveys to formulate rigorous population numbers. Despite barroom banter, there are not wolves behind ever tree. Wisconsin conducts the longest running and most detailed analysis in the country. Between monitoring radio collared animals and tracking surveys, an accurate assessment can be made of distribution, pack and territory size, birth and mortality rates and total numbers. Wisconsin is the only state to conduct annual surveys over the entire wolf range and do aerial monitoring across all management blocks. Wolves travel great distances daily, so tracks and other sign left behind can give the appearance of greater than actual numbers. Detailed scrutiny of survey results yields scientific figures aiding research and management of human wolf conflict.

Each wolf ecology class also includes field work. Several TWIN members spent the morning surveying the adjacent Eau Claire county forest for wolf and other carnivore sign. Luckily, a lightly traveled snow covered woods road provided the perfect teaching opportunity for the students. We caravanned to the remote location and within a short hike studied tracks of fox, coyote, fisher and wolf. The beauty of this location was many of the tracks were next to each other, so size and gait could easily be compared between species. A RLU (raised leg urination) also marked this stretch of road, indicating an alpha wolf had ventured here. Forest type and regeneration were also discussed and how land practices effect animals living there.

The wolf made the deer what it is. The deer made the wolf what it is” For the Timber wolf in Wisconsin, the whitetail is the main prey. In presenting predator/prey associations, Dick Thiel examined closely that relationship and how it effects the ecosystem. Studies unequivocally show wolves prey mostly on the young and old- much different from (human) hunters who tend to kill the most prime animals. The end result is that the prey species can actually be healthier as a result by wolf predation. Contrary to most tailgate chatter, the wolf, at a density of .1/square mile (compared to coyotes at 1/sq.mi or bear at .5/sq.mi) are far down the list as a cause of deer mortality. Hunters and winters top the list by a huge margin. Recent scientific studies of deer mortality conducted in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan support this fact. In earlier times, nature would keep the deer herd in check with predators, avoiding over browsing and changes to the ecosystem. Now, man has stepped in to dictate deer numbers (as a favored species) and carnivores like the wolf are secondary.

The wolf is neither man's competitor nor his enemy. He is a fellow creature with whom the earth must be shared. ... If the wolf is to survive, the wolf haters must be outnumbered. They must be outshouted, out financed, and out voted. Their narrow and biased attitude must be outweighed by an attitude based on an understanding of natural processes. (Dr. L. David Mech)

Of course wolf/human conflicts do occur acknowledged the TWIN presenters. Whereas “predation” is killing of a native prey, “depredations” are of a domestic animal, and they do happen. Proponents of the Wisconsin wolf hunt justified it because, among other reasons, agricultural damage (to livestock). Statistically in the state, only .17% of the farms experience loss. Interestingly, deer damage payments total $1.2 million in ag claims, bear at $262,000 and $151,000 for wolves, ( $56,000 of that paid to hound hunters). Wolves depredating on livestock (much like problem bears) are targeted though lethal and non lethal means and have been quite successful in reducing those losses. Depredation on hounds has not, and even though the DNR reports on every dog killed and publishes “caution areas” there are still claims being made and paid by the state-in some circles, a controversial policy. No other state makes (up to $2500) payments to hound hunters. 2/3rds of these losses occur during the bear (hound) training season in July and August when wolf packs move to rendezvous sites, which are diligently protected. Although the wolf hunt law provided for the very contentious use of dogs, past seasons never progressed into the mating and breeding seasons-a potential for more aggressive behavior.

Although Little Red Riding Hood in reality has a much more perverse meaning, tales like that of the big bad wolf along with the Three Little Pigs and folklore perpetuate an animosity not founded in reality. Prior to 1900, there were few attacks in North America and until 2005, no humans killed. (2005-a runner in Saskatchewan near a dump was killed, bear and wolf possible and not confirmed. In 2010 a female runner in Alaska, also near a dump and not taking precautions was killed) Other species, like our much more common Black Bear, (which does attack and kill people) seem to get a free pass and not generate the same felicitous fear the wolf does. I queried why that might be? Scott Thiel suggested maybe because wolves are similar to us and perhaps we see ourselves in wolves.

Farley Mowat (Never Cry Wolf) described it this way: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.” And author Gerald Hausman concurs with Thiels thought: “We humans fear the beast within the wolf because we do not understand the beast within ourselves.”

We learned there is a correlation between our two species. Both have been evolutionarily successful, both live in social groups made up of families and are characterized by hierarchies, cooperation and communication. We both have fixed territories and homes, pursue and consume flesh while hunting the same species. We have co-evolved with wolves.

At the time our hunter/gatherer ancestors, we lived in a boom or bust cycle of survival. We had large territories and the spiritual view of nature was positive. Later, during our agriculture based society, we had a stable food supply for the most part and a religious view of nature in the negative. The natural world was to be conquered and tamed. Market hunting exploited game and sport hunting developed to conserve just a selected species with the elimination of a suite of predators who were viewed as competition. Perhaps this backstory shapes our view of the wolf?

The TWIN workshop wrapped up with a close look at wolf management across the country and more specifically the state. 1974-75 marked the first wolves wandering back into north west Wisconsin from Minnesota. By 1977-78, 2 packs had formed in Douglas County, signaling a start in recovery to the state. That same year the species was listed as threatened in neighboring Minnesota, while endangered elsewhere. In 1999, Wisconsin's written wolf recovery plan had a goal of 350-500 in population in what was thought at the time to be suitable wolf range. They have proven to be able to adapt to habitat outside of the deep remote forest of far northern Wisconsin and populations have now reached 660 (in last winters count).

Federal protection yo-yo'd back and forth for a number of years before delisting in 2012. Although no mention of a wolf hunting season was contained in the original wolf recovery plan, a harvest bill was quickly written after de-listing. Dick Thiel recalled that January 29th, 2012 was a Friday night ( date of the wolf de-listing), by Saturday a hunt bill was drafted and the following Wednesday there were public hearings. Quickly thereafter the bill was signed into law. Of concern with Wisconsin Act 169 (wolf hunt bill) was how quickly it was enacted. All indications are it was written and backed by a special interest group and passed long by legislators. Concerns raised were that the DNR had no negotiations with native tribes, to reduce the population to 350, having a season structure spanning one-third of the year-including breeding season and the unprecedented use of hounds. In one hastily passed bill, science plans were totally wiped out by the legislature.

After three years of sport hunting, the eastern grey wolf was again re-listed in December of 2014. How federal law protections of wolves and indeed the future of the Endangered Species Act are uncertain. Lawmakers, even at this time, are rushing to pass legislation to remove all protections permanently (as they have in Montana and Idaho). The controversy over this animal will undoubtedly continue. There are extreme views from stakeholders on both sides of the wolf issue and perhaps groups like TWIN, and the scientific education they provide, can narrow that divide and bring a more sound reasoning and understanding of the species.

Wolves are not our brothers; they are not our subordinates, either. They are another nation, caught up just like us in the complex web of time and life. (Henry Beston)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TWIN Track-A-Thon

Eastern Grey Wolf
Although I've been tracking animals for as long as I can remember, it's usually been as a side interest to whatever other outdoor excursion I'm on- hunting, cross country skiing, mountain biking or snowshoeing. Grooming ski trails late at night always offers great opportunities as well and sometimes the hours last a little longer if I'm distracted by minutes old fresh animal sign. If anything, those days now feel like the minor leagues-I knew tracks pretty well, but after completing tracking certification and becoming a Volunteer DNR tracker earlier this year, it's more like I graduated to the big show. Now, I need to be very precise, I need to verify, look for evidence and confirm what I'm seeing in the snow and keep detailed records....yeah, this is a new ball game.

This past weekend TWIN (Timber Wolf Education Network) held their annual “Track-A-Thon” in the central forest region of Wisconsin-the southern end of wolf territory in the state. Headquartering out of the Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock, TWIN members meet, were given assignments on tracking areas, discussed recent sign and headed out to spend a day surveying their blocks. TWIN focuses on science-based wolf education and provides outreach through wolf ecology workshops each winter. Most members are also involved with the Wisconsin DNR volunteer carnivore tracking program and results from the Track-A-Thon were forwarded to that effort.

The WDNR runs the most extensive tracking surveys in the country, starting in 1977 for fur bearing animals. Wolf tracking began formally in 1979 and the current volunteer program of conducting wolf and carnivore surveys started in 1995. The intention of the study, in addition to determining numbers and territories of wolves, is also to keep tabs on other medium to large carnivores and determine if rare species like Canada lynx, wolverine or cougar also exist in the state.

Bob Cat
Participants are asked to complete a track training course, attend a wolf ecology class sponsored by the DNR, Timber Wolf Alliance or TWIN, complete a mammal test and conduct a minimum of three surveys submitting their results per guidelines to the DNR.

Being new to the group, I was eager to meet and learn as much as possible during this day long event. Sandhill is about 30 miles east of my usual tracking area, so I decided to start my survey on some unexplored forest roads nearer that side of my block. I'd been tutored on using some high tech gear-an external GPS unit, which blue tooth connects to my ipad loaded with various off-line maps. The DNR tracking surveys follow specific protocol and one needs to carefully record the survey route and milage. I found the technology on the dash of the truck advantageous, and if needed, I could flip through different charts on the ipad, looking at everything from topo maps to satellite imagery. Track locations could be added with waypoints and details typed in on the fly. That said, there is also room for the old school methods. Hand written notes on every track observed were scribbled with pencil in a notebook and old fashioned folding wood rulers did the measuring. I do carry a digital camera as well and police evidence scales (rulers) to grab images of particularly interesting tracks or sign.

The track-a-thon was lucky enough to fall about 36 hours after the last snowfall-prime time to get good tracks. Windy conditions the previous day also helped in aging-aiding trackers in determining how recently animals passed by. If roads hadn't been plowed, then it's a much easier task to spot sign. More traveled routes, require an even slower survey speed. My average pace was under 8 mph for the five and half hours in the field. All larger carnivores are recorded-every coyote, bobcat, fisher and wolf track is noted, located on a map and direction of travel indicated.

Coyotes are ever more present and jumping in and out of the truck to check their prints and document them is quite a task. It's when there is something different about a track, the size, the gait pattern, how the snow is scuffed, that makes tracking exciting and I'm quick to exit the warm cab. Deer prints are pretty easy to spot and dismiss-they wander, have a wide straddle and leave a collar of snow around their steps.

Bob Cat
My first 2 miles seemed to take forever-frequent coyotes criss-crossing the road and plenty of deer sign kept the pace slow. Hitting a forest road with all fresh snow and no other vehicle traffic was divine for surveying. Within another mile, a tell-tale large, consistent and widely spaced imprint suggested a wolf. Excitedly jumping out of the truck, my thoughts were confirmed-perfect 4.5” canid track-an Eastern Grey Wolf. Although we are recording all carnivores, wolves are what we most want to keep tabs on, so this was a great find so early in my survey. Following the trail into the woods off road, there was good reason why “he” was here-whitetails had the whole area tore up feeding on acorns-good habitat for both animals. The wolf continued for some distance, seemingly having places to get to south of my position, so I continued checking roads and dead end flowage trails for more sign.

Another hour passed and I hit the trackers mother-load (well, we do get excited about finding different species!)- A wolf, also traveling south, a large bobcat and just a ¼ mile down the same lane, a Fisher, bounding down the road before veering off to bop from tree to tree. It's interesting that the snow covered roads can be a blank slate for miles and all of a sudden, you collect a bunch of tracks all at once.

Slow miles continued for another hour on pristine drifted roads until spotting a day old track. The wolf had followed a logging road and I back tracked it for a mile to the point it entered from a large marsh. Another fresh track had crossed this, so I had plenty of information to record and GPS. Soon, things became crazy-several sets of tracks crossed the road different directions and I needed to investigate further into the woods to figure out where they came from. One group of three seemed to have found something interesting under a brush pile-the tracks had the ground pounded smooth, but there was no other sign. A bit further, a pair of tracks traversed the lane in an opposite direction and left behind a RLU (raised leg urination)-a good indication this was a alpha animal in the pack. Scribbling notes and drawing arrows on maps, all the sign seemed to point at just a few animals that were going back and forth in a small area. In any regard, it was fun and challenging to decipher all clues left on this short section of road.

Wiley E. Coyote
Sometimes it's a matter of feast or famine. As interesting as that flurry was, the next 2 hours passed with only a couple coyote prints, a ton of deer sign and another bobcat trail to keep me busy. My truck slithered down more narrow rutted paths, but for the most part, the snow was undisturbed for the final two hours.

Volunteer trackers are asked to travel 20-30 miles each outing, so with 26.5 recorded and completing a loop in the state and county forest, I ended the survey. From here it was a long drive back to Sandhill where we would tabulate results and do a post survey debriefing, along with just visiting and finding out what the other participants discovered. Most of the TWIN members have many years experience under their belts and had a good handle on what we'd find. On the wolf tally, some individuals and packs were located where expected, while others seem to have disappeared, fueling discussion within the group for possible causes.

Later in the evening Retired wolf biologist Dick Thiel and Ray Leonard, TWIN chairperson, lead a discussion on the recent re-listing of the eastern grey wolf to the endangered species list. The day was a great opportunity to make connections with other TWIN members, practice the craft of tracking and spend a day outdoors in the winter, always a good thing and something I'll look forward to again.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Re-Listing of the Eastern Grey Wolf

On Friday Dec. 19th U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell put the wolf back on the endangered species list in the Great Lakes region. Howell in Washington, D.C., ruled that the (previous) removal was "arbitrary and capricious" and violated the federal Endangered Species Act.

Is the federal ruling, returning the Eastern Grey Wolf to protected status a matter of be careful for what you wish for in wolf advocate circles? Already the social media is strife with extreme comments on how wolf detractors will “take matters into their own hands.”

Ed **** I'll shoot every damn one I see regardless of some windbag yuppie federal judge”
Mike ***** Just keep gut shooting them fellas.
Brett ******** Gut shot them bastards!
Mark ******* Wolf permit in every box of shells
Daniel ****** Poison works best
Mike '********** Well, poaching season is officially open.
Matthew *****Let Ted Nugent come to Wisconsin with his AR and a helicopter and kill all the wolves!
Scott ******Does not effect me.. If they are seen they are shot. And the same goes with many people I know.
Travis ******F#%@ this they wouldn't of had to worry about it if they didn't bring them back in the first place we killed them off once for a good reason need to do it again(sic)

ad nauseam....

Just as zealous anti-hunters can go overboard from the general public's opinion on the controversial subject, it appears the “kill them all” faction won't (and hasn't) done themselves any favors either with such fodder. Openly defying federal law (and previously state laws) won't win any points with citizens of the state who generally favor having wolves on the Wisconsin landscape.

Placing the wolf under federal protection takes control away from the states in the upper Midwest in managing their wolf populations-something that appears to create a backlash-at least behind the safety and anonymity of online comments.

Ron ******* Guys that see wolves and have not pulled the trigger because they have a chance to take a legal one, now have no reason to not drop the hammer. Just saying - this could backfire in a bad way.

Will the wolf's change in status by the ESA ruling really reverse perceived diminished poaching behavior? Some claim that instating a hunting season for wolves reduced incidents of poaching in the state, a fact that is difficult at best to verify and by some experts, highly debatable. In a letter this past fall to the USF&W service by The UW's Dr. Adrian Treves and others, the assertion was made that the state has under estimated wolf mortality figures. Not only did they question the underreporting of poaching in state studies, but also addressed the “new threat “-hound hunting and unrestricted unmonitored year round hound-training on wolves. At that time, previous to Wisconsin's wolf hunt beginning in October, they recommended emergency re-listing by the Secretary of the Interior as provided by the ESA.

Principal reasoning for this recommendation, besides the unprecedented hound issue and poaching concerns were Wisconsin's “unorthodox methods for analyzing wolf mortality data, which run counter to decades of scientific practice...” And which “conflicts with the use of best available science.”

It appears that counter to some claims that a “liberal out east judge” made the re-listing decision out of ignorance of the species' recovery in the great lakes region, there were and are sound scientific concerns.

The ESA requires at least a five year monitoring period after de-listing. The final rule to remove wolves from ESA protection was published December 28th 2011 and went into effect 30 days later. In Wisconsin, by April 2nd 2012, political moves fast tracked a wolf hunting bill (act 169), which Gov. Scott Walker quickly signed into law detailing provisions for hunting, trapping and controversial hound hunting of wolves. Unlike a slow, measured and scientific approach to a possible hunting season predicted by then State wolf ecologist Adrian Wydeven, outside interests hastily and some claim recklessly, pushed through an ill-conceived hunt law.

Perhaps wolf hunt enthusiasts shot themselves in the foot by rushing to an immediate and perhaps too liberal of a hunting season?

Nathan Vine, Stevens Point Journal Media journalist recently interviewed Melissa Smith, organizer of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf, who was as surprised as most at the reversal by Judge Howell. She wondered if the judge's ruling wasn't influenced in part on Wisconsin's allowing the use of dogs and passing a wolf hunt law immediately after de-listing. (though Howell didn't specifically mention that in the ruling) "Wisconsin was originally supposed to have a five-year moratorium on hunting after the delisting, but that obviously went out the window in favor of politics," Smith said. "We don't want a wolf population that is just enough to keep it off the endangered list, and I don't think public opinion supports that either."

Her last statement is upheld by a survey released this past fall of Wisconsin residents both in and outside of state wolf range. A majority of survey respondents supported maintaining at least the number of wolves currently in the state-around 660. This opinion runs counter to a 1999 plan to keep a threshold of 350 animals. It's been demonstrated and generally agreed on by biologists, that the 350 number was based on old science and the state does have a higher carrying capacity.

One pro-wolf hunter from Stevens Point chimed in, "The judge is not an expert, and her decision had nothing to do with sound biology. We had experts who came up with an educated response to control these wolves, and it was working,"

The question remains who were “we” and who are these “experts?”

In a letter by retired WDNR wildlife biologist Dick Thiel to the Natural Resource Board a few short months after Act 169, he questioned that very issue. “In my opinion Act 169 is an example of legislation based upon twisted misinformation controlled by special self-interests.“ Two of the bills authors, Reps. Suder and Rivard repeatedly testified at public hearings they “consulted with Department “experts.” However, It's clear from Thiel's letter, no prominent national wolf expert, nor even any within the WDNR scrutinized the law. Instead, a staff lawyer and department administrator were left to answer questions about a “species that was considered federally endangered a mere 5 days earlier – to a hunted species.”

There was further frustration by Thiel at the department administration ignoring the latest published work by noted wildlife experts Dr. Timothy Van Deelen and Adrian Wydeven. To sum, the DNR’s Wolf Management Plan lacks crucial updates in both habitat parameter projections and population management profiles published in the 2009 book and made available since that time. Clearly the Department of Natural Resources is using outdated information from an antiquated plan to guide wolf harvesting in a state with no previous experience doing so.”

So one has to wonder just how scientifically sound were the hunting seasons implemented by great lakes states and perhaps one consideration in affording ESA protection again? In Wisconsin at least, there is evidence there were concerns. “In order for science to drive wolf management decisions members of the Wolf Technical Science Committee constantly had to counter misinformation regarding wolves. This task is made more arduous when having to confront disinformation that vocal individuals and Stakeholder groups banter about in public arenas. In my opinion Act 169 is an example of legislation based upon twisted misinformation controlled by special self-interests.” Testified Thiel. That's a pretty damning statement by an internationally renown expert.

And the comments continue:
Gray wolves are vermin that need to be slaughtered for the greater good.”
Ed **** “I'll shoot every damn one I see regardless of some windbag yuppie federal judge”
Doug **** “Lets do our own wolf hunt! If we get caught, whats the worse that could happen? A fine and hunting privledges (sic) taken away? Big whoop! “

While wildlife advocates like Smith have expressed a desire to work with scientists toward a biologic and socially acceptable wolf population level, one is left to wonder if comments like these by the anti-wolf sect is just digging themselves in a deeper hole? By openly defying federal law it seems to dismiss immediately any and all opinions they may have for better or worse. Alarmingly yet for ethical hunters, there is a danger of being lumped into that faction by the non-hunting public-a place most of us don't relish or deserve to be.

As of now, the ruling puts a stop to the entire wolf season...just not the cantankerous issues. The end result being (hopefully) a more deliberate and considered approach to managing one of our most (undeservingly ) controversial species.
“Killing everything that we don’t like shows an utter lack of respect for not only life, but for the intricate web of life that we are a part of.”-Greta Hyland