Researchers are learning more and more about our neighbors the wolves, thanks to improving technology, better financial support, and cooperation among agencies. Recently I came across an update on the wolf monitoring program at the Fond du Lac Chippewa Reservation near Cloquet, Minnesota. It made great reading—sort of a cross between a peer-reviewed scientific paper and an episode of Downton Abbey. I called the program manager, Mike Schrage, to learn more.
The Reservation is about 150 square miles, and currently is home to four wolf packs, named for points of geography known to nearby human residents. The study began in 2016. “Our study area is the Fond du Lac Reservation and surrounding area, but wolves sometimes have the bad grace to walk off on their own and set up elsewhere, so my study area can change,” says Schrage. “I’ve had wolves take off and move to Canada and to Wisconsin.”
There can also be new additions. Recently some wolves appeared on the edge of the territory, near the small town of Meadowlands, and Schrage has begun monitoring them as part of his study.
The study is designed to estimate how many wolves are using the Reservation each year, the sizes and locations of their territories, what happens to the animals and how things change over time.
Workers capture wolves with foothold traps in spring, summer and fall. Lately, Schrage has been using snares, also called cable restraints, in the winter. Foothold traps have a pair of jaws, laminated or covered with rubber pads to reduce injury, which are powered by springs set to close the jaws when an animal steps on a trigger.
“You can’t use footholds in winter because of the risk of freezing the animal’s foot,” Schrage explains. A snare is a cable hung in a loop over a trail, high enough for fox, coyote, and bobcats to walk under it, with the lower loop at chest height on a wolf. As the animal walks through it, it drops down behind the ears, snugs around the neck, without choking the animal. The other end of the cable is anchored below the frost line.
The animal is sedated, weighed, and measured. The team attaches two ear tags and inserts two microchips under the skin for future identification. Some of the captured wolves are fitted with a tracking collar.
The collar not only transmits locations from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to Schrage’s computer at programmed intervals; it also sends out a VHF radio signal which allows the team to track the animal’s movements by ground or by aircraft in real time.
The collars are designed to last for about two-and-a-half years and then break apart and drop off before the batteries die. “If a wolf dies, his collar transmits a mortality alert by email and text message which should allow me to find him and hopefully determine a cause of death,” says Schrage.
The study includes several strategically-placed cameras, but it takes a lot of work to get a useful photo. The recent report mentions that one photo, showing seven members of the Headquarters Pack, “took several weeks, 2 cameras, a half dozen roadkill deer and something like 50,000 pictures (mostly of ravens and eagles) to get 2 photos of all 7 wolves together.”
Wolf dens are located by monitoring adult locations during the spring of each year. Wolf pups are born from late March through mid-April, and in addition to the parents, other adult members of the pack help with puppy-raising duties. “After a den is identified,” Schrage says, “we visit it when the pups are expected to be about four-to-five weeks old in order to count, weigh and sex them and implant microchips under their skin. The microchips can be read with a wand if the pups are ever handled again so their identity and place of origin can be determined.”
The Fond du Lac study coordinates with Minnesota DNR, which conducts flyovers roughly once a week in the winter. “With snow on the ground, they can count the wolf packs. With the pack size and the territory size we can get a good estimate of the overall population,” Schrage says.
A remote camera captures a captivating scene with the Nashata Pack in Voyageurs National Park. Video courtesy Tom Gable
Everyone wants to know how much land a wolf pack needs. Schrage says it depends not only on pack size, but how aggressive it is, the prey base, and other factors. On the Fond du Lac Reservation, the average size of a pack territory is 20-30 square miles, but there’s a wide range. Some packs can get by on 20 square miles, while others need 60. This compares to a statewide average of 57 square miles, concentrated in the northern part of the state. “Wolves don’t have to range very far to get the food they need here, and there’s no shortage of beavers either,” says Schrage. An intriguing finding from research at Voyageurs National Park is that wolves sometimes lie in wait along beaver trails to grab a meal.
Man-made structures like roads and railroad tracks often serve as pack boundaries. “A road isn’t a wall; they can walk over it, but you often see a certain pack never crosses Highway 2. It’s a territory boundary and perhaps if the road wasn’t there, the territory would be bigger, but it serves as a nice border between neighbors.” The St. Louis River also sometimes serves as a border between packs.
In late March 2022, a collared male from the Gist Pack and one from the Solway Pack left their territories and wandered widely. The Gist Pack wolf (FDL001) moved northwest past Floodwood, turned south past Cromwell to Moose Lake, then northeast toward Superior, WI. He spent a few days there including a night along the beach on Wisconsin Point. Then he turned around, retraced his steps past Moose Lake, Cromwell and Floodwood. The Solway Pack wolf (FDL005) crossed the St. Louis River and briefly trespassed through the Gist Pack’s territory before turning north towards Albrook. He then veered northeast and traveled around Boulder and Island Lakes, then retraced his steps.
Life is tough
Recent research suggests that human-caused deaths of key pack members can reduce the chances of pack survival and growth. One Fond du Lac pack experienced that tough reality last year, with a welcome happier ending.
As the recent report describes it, in early May the breeding male of the Otter Creek Pack “got tangled up in a cattle depredation complaint outside his normal territory” and was trapped and shot by USDA animal control officers. “The next day we located the pack’s den… and found 8 recently dead pups in it. The pups were only about 2 weeks old and… they probably starved to death.” The mother stopped showing up on trail cameras, although some of her surviving daughters from previous years were still around. Schrage expected the loss of both of the breeding wolves so close together would lead to the breakdown of the pack. “But the surviving Otter Creek daughters proved resilient and stayed together. By the middle of June our trail cameras revealed one of them had recruited (seduced?) a new male to remain in their territory.”
As we talked, I gently teased Schrage, suggesting that he really cares about these wolves. He chuckled and said, “I try very hard not to get attached to them as individuals: they’re not pets, they’re wild animals. And let’s face it, even in the best of circumstances most of them will have short lives and brutal endings, one way or another. But after a while, particularly with some of these wolves that have been transmitting their FM signals for a long time, you get familiar with them and where they’ve been, maybe you’ve handled their pups a couple of times, people call with information about them, and they are like friends or colleagues.”
Meanwhile, at Voyageurs National Park
To the north of the Fond du Lac Reservation, Voyageurs National Park sprawls across 341 square miles, and a long-term study (building on research dating to 1977) tells us that wolf density has remained fairly constant for many years.
The study has been adding staff and technology in recent years. In 2019 the team set up a lot of remote cameras to capture more observations of each of the park’s 16 wolf packs. This gives researchers greater certainty about how many wolves are in each pack at a given time.
Gable’s team is collecting more data every year, but they still have many questions. Pup survival is obviously key to population growth or decline. Gable says there is a lot of variation in pup survival year-to-year. “For three years we saw low pup survival, but last year there was really good survival. Something is going on but we don’t understand it.” Is it disease, prey density, wolves killing other packs’ pups? There are a lot of factors at play, and Gable expects learning more about Minnesota wolves can help researchers understand wolf populations around the world. He and his colleagues will soon share some of their insights in articles prepared for submission to peer-reviewed journals.
The money for the Voyageurs National Park research comes mainly from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (state lottery money). Gable’s team has consciously promoted the research and made the results available in mainstream media. Annual reports are available on the web, and are colorful and appealing. The project has a Facebook page and a large following on Twitter. These outreach efforts have attracted more than three thousand private donors.
Gable’s report notes that average wolf density in the GVE represents some of the highest sustained densities reported in the U.S. Some years in Yellowstone and Isle Royale National Parks have seen slightly higher densities, but these are not sustained. Wolves in Voyageurs seem to benefit from a stable deer population and a plentiful supply of beavers.