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: