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

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 in Pix

Big feet
It has become a yearly "thing" I guess.  For photographers, it's not uncommon.  We look back and try and pick out our best work- "the best of two thousand...whatever."  That's never worked quite right for me.  I mean, one is supposed to find the very best work I've done...all year.  But, by what standard?  What is technically great?  A perfect composition?  Subject?  Yeah-that's supposed to be how it works but sometimes I can't pass by a picture that I just plain like.  So I try to live by another slightly different credo: "I take pictures of things I like and I like these pictures. I hope the viewer likes these."  If not, that's okay...they're published here for lots of reasons.  I'm asked from time to time what I photograph.  "Hmmm, people, places, things." That covers pretty much everything I guess and no apologies for that.

So these are kinda chronological-some months maybe just one, others, like April, seemed to be flooded with photos I liked.  The intro one was and an early excursion after hip surgery-something that would define this year, or at least the first part of it.  It's just a flooded ditch, the result of a frozen collapsed culvert at the end of the driveway. It would end up costing over a grand later in the year to fix.  Glad I didn't know that at the time and was content to march around on the ice in snowshoes.

Two Thousand Fourteen in pictures:

Frosty Molly

Molly is pretty photogenic.  Her pure joy at bombing thru the snow (which we had plenty of in February) is unbounded and every once and a while, she'd plow through the snow back to me just to be sure I was following along.


What follows are a series of photos taken one wet snowy morning.  School was called off-the dumping making bus delivery of students a bit touch and go.  I love those days (of course). First thing I do is hop in the truck and go somewhere.  These are mostly from the Town of Hewett where the truck finds it's self driving around the most.  I know these roads well.  They can be dry and dusty, wet and sloppy or snow covered and beautiful.  I know-that's a matter of opinion but it's rural life.
Sydney Road

Maple Road

South Mound Road
Ermine and Fatbike Tracks
The fatbike has changed how I spend winter-for better or worse.  I consider(d) myself a diehard XC skiier, and enjoyed the change of sport seasons.  But... fatbikes are too damn fun.  They get me places I can't ski and opens the door to more exploring.  This pic represents two things I love to do-riding and tracking-trying to decipher what the animal is telling me in the sentiences of their steps.


Immature Eagle
A neighbor had up to 15 eagles in a field this spring-an event I couldn't pass up.  Camo tent was hidden and early morning before work excursions were taken to try to get some decent shots.  I think I fired 300 or 400 at least.  Of all, this was my favorite.  The birch and the moddled feathers seem to work well.


Arndt Road Cranes
Pairs of Sandhill cranes seem to always pick the 'hood here and try and take up a home.  Some succeed-others lose their precious colts to mother nature-she always holds the trump cards.  In any regard, I love their return and try to keep tabs on which pairs stay in the land nearby.  These two were not successful in raising any young, but hopefully they'll return next spring and try again.


Gander over frog Pond
Spring brings back waterfowl-even to lowly Clark County-not exactly the hotbed of duck habitat.  Down the road is a small waterfowl scrape and any ducks who spy it, seem to make it a home for at least a day or two.  The woodies stay longer and usually one pair of geese raise goslings there, so they provide some opportunities for a few fun shots. This is a bit "artsy" but it works for me.

Capt. Kris and John
So this falls under " a picture tells a story" category.  Kris started up his own charter fishing business (Northpoint Sport Fishing) and invited my friend John and I out for some early coho fishing to give the boat a shake down cruise. Kris knows his stuff and we did very well on the silvery fish.  What's funny to me here is that John knows more about fishing than about anyone, yet  big deep lake fishing is out of his element. A few pointers here by the captain seem to be saying "you turn this handle thingy and then the fish comes in!"  Funny to me anyway...


Patterns in the Forest

This is more for me.  I love flying and when up in a small small plane, one sees a world we're unaware of when traveling at ground level.  I had another opportunity to tag along on a radio telemetry flight with DNR pilot Beverly Paulan in search of collared wolves.  So far for me, that score card has remained empty, but no matter-I'm amazed by how the forest, swamps and marshes look from above.  I just don't tire of this view.


Porcupine Mountains Deep Forest
I've made some forays to the Porcupine Mountains and just a little taste on it's edges, but never deep into them.  Friends Mark Haferman and Dave Borman and I dove in last summer-maybe at the worst possible time.  I'll just say bugs.  But, we still saw beauty, had adventure, hiked through places unlike anywhere else in the Midwest.  Towering Hemlock forests just humble me and I'll need to get back here again.


Sturtz Prairie Morning

A native prairie is a pretty amazing place in the summer-one could drive by at 50 mph and miss everything there and not give it a second thought.  Taking a stroll though it however, opens a door to what so much of Wisconsin once looked like-a hundred or more years ago.  I'm fortunate to befriend folks that believe this matters and these places matter.


Bowles Lake Steam
Sometimes I have to force myself to shoot-or at least shoot things I usually don't.  That's not to say wading into cold water at sunrise is something I'd avoid, but necessity is the mother know.  I try to take a photography class each summer just to jump start "seeing" pictures.  What the class is on is less important that just doing it as they say.  Friend Mitch Mode offered me housing in his rustic off the grid cabin which facilitated a 5:00am dip in the cold lake each morning.  Grogginess disappears instantly.   On this daybreak, the camera came along for the swim.


I like boats-riding on them, fishing from them and making pictures of them.  Tugs are the under appreciated vessels of the ship world it seems.  This little guy was anchored in the Fox River just off Green Bay awaiting to flex some muscle and tackle his next job.


Bikes Planes beer and Buddys
For me again-just a reminder of Gnomefest and good times with wings and wheels and friends.


Famous Molly
This shot seemed to be pinned to the top of the Wisconsin Outdoor Fun web site all fall on the picture page.  Not that I minded-she's my girl!  Taken after a successful retrieve on the "USA pond" in Lehr North Dakota.  She's in her element here.


Duk Love
There is something only duck hunters will understand-the great satisfaction of getting the decoys out, hunkering down and waiting for the first whistling wings overhead.  No one else will get it and the pink sunrise is just a bonus.


Selfie with Black Lab
Bean field, North Dakota.  A little break from the potholes to see if the dog and I can prod any pheasants or sharptails in the air.

The Stand

Gun hunting is so much less about getting a deer and more about just being out there.  There is nothing like the pre-dawn hour, in the cold but not being cold-the optimism ahead and knowing there are hours of quiet time to look forward to in the stand.

"I take pictures of things I think are cool. I think these pictures are cool, I hope the viewer thinks they are cool too. Cool?" - See more at:
"I take pictures of things I think are cool. I think these pictures are cool, I hope the viewer thinks they are cool too. Cool?" - See more at:
"I take pictures of things I think are cool. I think these pictures are cool, I hope the viewer thinks they are cool too. Cool?" - See more at:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cougars in Wisconsin

“Finally, the DNR admits there are cougars in Wisconsin!” How many times has that been said? Actually the Wisconsin DNR has always been keenly interested in any big cat sightings in the state, according to recently retired DNR Mammalian/Ecologist/Conservation Biologist Adrian Wydeven.

The former Head Wolf Recovery Program Biologist was also responsible to track down (pun intended) any reports of sightings of rare species like the cougar in Wisconsin.   Recently, at the Treehaven Outdoor Education Center, Wydeven presented “Cougars in Wisconsin,” an overview of the animal that once roamed the state, but has been gone from the landscape since the early 1900's.

Reports of “Puma Concolor, panther, catamount, mountain lion or mishibijn (Ojibwa), started trickling in to the DNR during the early '90s. The large tawny colored cat is one of three species native to the state, with only bobcats having a breeding population. Along with the cougar, Canada lynx have also been known to be reported here.

Prior to 1920, the 100-150 pound cats roamed primarily in the southern 2/3rds of the state in habitat more suited than the thick forest to the north. While males typically can have a range of 150 square miles, females stay much closer to home, covering only 64 sq. miles. Their primary prey are deer, but they will also take elk (out west) and smaller game like rabbits, beaver and raccoons.

Wydeven stated that although there had been earlier sightings, probably escaped captive animals, it wasn't until 2008 when DNR evidence confirmed a cougar of Black Hills (SD) origin near Milton, WI. A trapper followed tracks and discovered the cat in a barn. Upon retreating it suffered a injury providing blood along hair samples which was collected for DNA anylasis. That report quickly progressed from “possible” to “probable” to confirmed. Unfortunately, the cougar ultimately ventured into Illinois, possibly following the Chicago River corridor and was shot by police in the city. A year later in March of 2009, a cougar was treed near Spooner. Attempts were made to capture and collar it, but failed. During the same year another was caught on a game cam near Eau Claire in Dunn county.

Although the DNR has been accused of covering up reports of populations, including cubs or kittens (which would indicate a breeding population), Wydeven said those claims would run counter to biologists desire to know more about the big cats in the state. “Why would we hide it?” Wydeven asked. “We try and be very respectful of submitted observations.” Adding “We also strive to educate the public by posting confirmed observations on the DNR website.” "We take citizen observations seriously and value their input. They are our eyes and ears for some of the most interesting animal experiences," he said. "Interestingly, the epicenter of reported observations is the Rhinelander area." he commented when projecting a map of the state with pin points of sightings.

Aside from habitat, the bigger challenge of cougars will be living with people. When asked if there had been discussion on bringing females here to start a breeding population, Wydeven flatly said “No.” While the public would probably be okay with the species naturally returning, he doesn't see the same opinion if they were introduced. Evidence of that mindset is seen in angry accusations that wolves were “planted” in the state by the DNR, when in fact, they returned on their own from Minnesota. The state DNR has no management plans currently for cougar and they are protected in Wisconsin.

Peak sightings generally occur in summer for cougars. Although disappointing for many, some of these observations are discovered upon investigation to be false. Evidence of mistaken identity was presented by Wydeven (and can also be found on the DNR's rare animal web page). Many times these images are of bobcats. “Black panthers” (no black phases have been documented in North America) have proven to be other species like fishers while even coyotes with mange can be cougar look a-likes in photos. Sometimes “Cougars” caught on camera have even turned out to be domestic cats when there is no visual clues to compare relative size to at a distance. Others are hoaxes-from taxidermy mounted specimens to internet fodder. Photos of multiple mountain lions, cougars on someones porch and cats stalking a hunter-are attributed to multiple locations in the state over a period of years. They almost always are bogus.

Investigated and confirmed cases still continue. In 2010, a game cam picture of a male was taken in Clark County and eventually traveled to Bayfield county. It appears to be the same animal sighted in eastern Minnesota and Dunn county where DNA evidence was obtained. That cougar was killed in 2011 in Connecticut, a straight line distance of 1059 miles, by a car. Since cats don't like to cross long distances of water, Wydeven theorizes the animal traveled through the UP, crossing into Ontario and eventually through New York state- an amazing journey. There have even been photographs of collared cougars, again, most likely of South Dakota origin. In 2013, at least three cougars were confirmed in the state, all possibly the same animal. This past year an unusually clear image was captured in Lincoln County in August and another in September near Marinette.

With the incredible travels of some of these dispersing males to the Upper midwest states and as far as Connecticut, one wonders how soon viable populations could re-appear. In speaking to Wisconsin Public Radio in 2010 Wydeven expressed “We believe cougars may eventually reestablish in Wisconsin. We have habitat that’s suitable. Deer is their main food source. There’s source population in the Blacks Hills of South Dakota and we’re within the dispersal range of those.” He goes on to add, “ It’s one of the things as an agency we want to be on top of, that when cougars start to reestablish in the state, we want to be able to detect them and determine there are cougars and document their presence and monitor their populations.”

It's generally agreed that at some point in the future, cougars could very well return and reproduce in Wisconsin, but it will be a long road back. With females keeping a small range from where they were born, it could take decades for them to venture across South Dakota and Minnesota into suitable territory here.  But some have-at least males so far. "It demonstrates that these large carnivores can return to areas where they had once existed, if they're given adequate protection," Wydeven told LiveScience in 2011. Indeed, and as with the recent reinstatement of the grey wolf under the endangered species act, heated arguments will be made on both sides on whether a species, once at home here , will garner that protection and return to its home.

Report rare species to the DNR here:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Late Season Fog Hunt

If mist and fog can make sound, then I was hearing it- though I have no words to describe the shroud enveloping the forest. Fog lifts from the cold snowpack, rising shifting and waving in a slow motion dark swirl through the wet black tree trunks. It lifts up, clinging to every twig and branch until gravity pulls it back down again-”splat” on my fleece covered shoulder. “Drip,” “splat,”  “ping”- a droplet ricochets off the barrel of my gun.

This is the late season for antlerless deer. The woods are dead quiet but for the drops and drips and a few crows talking among themselves in a distant corn field. It's still.....there is no anticipation like filled these driftless coulees a few weeks ago on opening weekend. Just quiet reverence to be out here, not so much hunting as waiting. It really is waiting- quickly scouting a spot to take a stand, now with rifle in hand, overlooking a greater part of the forest than with a bow. No one else is out here. No one but crows, a flight of nuthatches and chickadees and soft yelps from unseen stirring turkeys.

The gun and muzzloader seasons are behind leaving only melted tracks from tired hunters venturing up and down logging roads and sign that deer are still here. My prints press deep and sharp into the corn snow and quickly fill with vapor. The headlamp cuts through dark and mist and end up on a small knoll, its hillsides tore up from hoofs and claws in search of acorns. The draws on either side are white or brown depending on the digging of feeding animals. I like this spot-daylight should provide good visibility, my back against a higher steep hill leading to a bluff top. A blowdown top of a huge oak provides a blind. This will do.

Some jays move in and converse in the weird “rilling” squawk talk. They stay a while pounding their beaks into bark separating seed from chaff. They are apparently unconcerned with me, for their usual woodland alarm call is not sounded. Time passes, the cloud on the ground remains and daylight only barely budges in.

“A deer!” 

Three black BBs, two eyes and a nose, stare directly at me, burning a hole in my hiding spot. I'm pegged. The silent snow and murky air allowed her to slip in unexpected. The doe was there now-right there...and I can't move a muscle. I fear the stream of steam from my breathing will send her tail to, but doesn't. It's a don't blink contest and I'm not confident I'll win.

The Winchester is right next to me but unreachable. Nothing between us twitches. She's done this before as have I. The usual result is watching the tail waving bye after a few tense minutes. The crows and jays continue their chatting oblivious to the standoff beneath them. Not to be pessimistic, but I'm pretty sure of the outcome here- rarely will a mature doe let her guard down. She'll not afford the hunter pause to swing a gun up once she is locked onto to....something, that doesn't belong.

I have wind to my advantage or this wouldn't be happening-she is just confirming with unblinking eyes and a dull thump of a foot striking the ground. No, the safety won't be clicked off or crosshairs find their mark-she'll end this soon.

A sheet of fog moves up the draw, my eyes get burry from staring. She ends the game-spins and with amazingly few bounds, puts trees and brush and enough distance between us that I just watch. And take a breath.

In the minutes that follow I wonder where the doe came from before appearing as a statue aimed directly at me. That's not where a deer was supposed to be-I had shots all visualized and set in my head other directions. I'm not frustrated, it's the way of hunting, of waiting. This place is their home, not mine, at least not mine enough.

The sun is up somewhere as the surrounding timber slowly grows lighter. The fog won't burn off this day, the just at freezing temps will keep the pea soup clinging close to the ground. No matter, I'm comfortable so far in the mild damp air and the woods are waking. There are worse places to be.

Trying to put venison in the freezer late season can be tackled two ways-bring some buddies and make pushes through parcels or solitary, taking the opportunity to have backwoods to yourself. I chose the latter.

This property normally has a small group of friends with bows and broadheads in hand when I hunt here. It's the rut then and deer habits are different than now. Bucks run all day and night, camo clad men tromp every acre, quite the opposite from December, when everything settles down for the approaching winter. There is no big drama like during the rut or rifle season, but rather just an opportunity to be here on the animals terms.

Corvis the crow and his clan shift location-perhaps finding tidbits to feed on, their caws echoing off the trees inviting others to join in. A chainsaw fires up and the clug of a diesel powered skidder drones on the far side of the property. The logging operation I drove though in the dark produced vast hi-ways of deer tracks-the tops proving browse. They'll be well fed this winter.

Free from the distraction of another deer showing up-one has more than enough time for the mind to wander. A common trait for most hunters I'd think. Quiet time on a stand is different from that of sitting in a comfortable chair at home, much like the outdoors enhancing the flavor of coffee poured from a thermos. I think about why no other deer have waltzed by, why the raucous crows have moved again and what they are up to. Deeper thought takes me to what this woods will look like when the skidders and saws move this direction. Good for wildlife eventually, but changed.

A bigger change will happen later and I wonder about that as well. Word passed down that after logging, a frac sand mine would be developed here, a big change. The ridges will be gone along with the deer and hunters who will move on. My friends and I have had a good run here, hunting this land and fortunate the owner has been gracious enough to share his property. In a year or two I'll have to find another place to sit on a snowy fog filled day. It won't be quiet or still then and there will be no staredowns with suspicious does. I'm thinking of this and a pair of crows alight in a tree nearby-clicking, rattling and grating crow talk, maybe sensing the thoughts drifting up from my blind.

A second pour of coffee into a tiny stainless cup warms my hands-the very best way to do that. A scan left and right concludes no whitetail has snuck into range. I guess while sitting here contemplative and scribbling notes, part of me was aware and keeping an minds-eye out for game. I think hunters develop a sixth sense for these things.

The crows move off having kept me company long enough apparently, while the jays return. A drawn-out, downward "kaaaar" of a Rough Legged Hawk is somewhere just beyond the limbs of the oak and white pine below me. Wonder if his hunting is going better than mine?

I start to think I maybe dressed a bit too optimistically, as my toes are starting to ache with cold in my too-thin boots. I can hold out a bit longer I think-there is still hope something might walk by from feeding to bedding grounds. “Wump wump” - a distant set of shots. Maybe I'm not the only one out here today?

Eventually, the feet win the argument that we're done. I'd been fidgeting a bit too much as well and realized I'm just staring blankly at the same trees, not “seeing” any longer. The reality that my season is over for the year sets in as I stuff and zip my pack, the backtag pinned on it at a strange angle and ready to retire.

There are always thoughts of pulling the bow out again, but I know better, the skis and fatbike and maybe an occasional foray with the black lab will not allow another deer hunt this year. The freezer will be venison-less again. I'll need to make mental note to prepare the pheasants and salmon still hiding there before it's too late and rely on successful family sharing a few steaks and roasts.

The hunt or wait or any time in the woods is all good and although this day, in the mist and fog and drips and melting snow, I'll return home empty handed...but with everything I needed.