Thursday, June 28, 2012

"W795" or "Saca" - The Wolf Study

 "Only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf." -Aldo Leopold

I think Leopold's quote says something very poignant there, that most of us have not lived long enough to be objective about many things.  For myself, I know I've learned more, appreciate more and am objective about more, the longer I have lived.  One of those  is the wolf.  Recently I had the opportunity to do a couple of ride-alongs during a cooperative wolf trapping effort for monitoring purposes.  It was run by the Ho-Chunk Nation Division of Woildlife, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wisconsin DNR.  One of the biologists is a friend and knew I have had an regard for these animals and would appreciate this chance to check traps in order to radio collar wolves for this monitoring project.   Since a young age-tracking animals has been something I’ve always enjoyed-following the evidence they leave behind and trying to read the stories by their subtle sign.  Over the past few years, tracking our largest canine has really piqued my interest, and even though I may be mountain biking, skiing or just shooting photographs, a watchful eye is always on the ground, looking for sign.

Though I’ve hunted my whole life, I know little of trapping techniques and was amazed at the skill involved in making the perfect set.   DeWayne Snobl, USDA Wildlife Specialist and Karen Karash, Ho-Chunk Nation wildlife biologist were more than willing to share their knowledge and answer (probably too many) my questions.   To my untrained eye, the sets were all but invisible.  Hopefully to the Canini nose however, it would attract the interest and attention of-in this case, Canis lupus lycaon- the Eastern Grey Wolf.   The knowledge, professionalism and concern for the animal’s health and well being was remarkable.  About a dozen traps were checked, some, with near hits, spawning optimism for the remaining few days to trap during the study.  Sometimes other animals may curiously check out a set, in our case, coyote and deer, and a set needs to be “spruced up”.  DeWayne accused himself of maybe over thinking the art of his sets, but his skills are rewarded with success.  The window of no rain, and cooler temperatures made this trapping opportunity just a few days long unfortunately.  The bear hound training season starts soon, and all trapping efforts will stop at that time to protect dogs.

"The wolf is neither man's competitor nor his enemy. He is a fellow creature with whom the earth must be shared." -L. David Mech

On my “day off” I received a message that a male had been captured, and if interested I could come to the site.  A quick drive deep into the woods and a quiet approach found the biologists and DNR wildlife technician recording data and taking samples-the wolf comfortably lying on a canvas ground cloth.

It was amazing to see, photograph and actually touch this 81pound male, who at the moment was quietly “sleeping” …an animal I have grown to respect and have hoped to have another glimpse of.  The previous day, the highlight was seeing a yearling cross a forest road as we traveled to another site. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was to be there and watch these professionals care for the animal.  The welfare of the wolf was of utmost concern, and through hushed voices, "W795" or "Saca", his Ho-Chunk name, was carefully checked for physical condition, with blood samples collected, body measurements recorded and temperature, pulse and respiration constantly monitored.  The biologist noted and photographed an old rear knee injury the wolf had and treated a sore associated with the knee injury.   Cool water bottles between his legs regulated his temperature and some minor wounds treated.  The radio tracking collar was tested and a careful eye was kept on a watch, knowing how much time they had to finish their work.

Care was taken to clear and remove the “work site” and I was surprised to be asked to keep an eye on the male and if he should start to come to, to gently hold him down- no, they weren’t kidding.  “No worries-he’ll be really out of it,” and I’d be safe. “The shoulders are a good place to hold him.” As exhilarating as that would have been, he stayed under until a wake up (antagonist) drug Yohimbine was administered.  Before injecting the drug, Karen left a small offering of tobacco to thank the Creator for this opportunity to handle the sukjak or wolf and to watch over him, a practice encouraged by a traditional Ho-Chunk member.

We all backed away, but kept a careful eye on him for signs of movement, signaling his awakening.  Shortly, maybe 5 minutes later, he woke, probably wondering why his world was spinning.  Sporting his shiny new collar, and gradually stumbling a bit, resting, trying again, he regained his motor skills and was able to move off to the brush and rendezvous with the pack at some point.

What an amazing experience. To be in the presence of this magnificent animal-one in which I feel has an important place in our outdoor world. Whenever I see their evidence and know they are here, I feel a bit more alive, that I am a part of something bigger than myself and that's worth witnessing as often as possible.

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. . . .There was something new to me in those eyes--- something known only to her and the mountains. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise, but after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." -Aldo Leopold

Update:  "Seca" or wolf 795 went "off-air" during the summer of 2013.  Another wolf had moved into his pack territory and for a while, both were radio tracked from the air.  A short time later Seca was unable to be located.  Wolf researchers sadly believe he was the victim of "lead poisoning" (shot).