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Northwoods Wolves by Steve Volkening

There it was. ''John, there's a wolf,'' I whispered. Only 20 to 30 yards from our canoe, a large black-phase adult wolf stood atop a lichen-encrusted boulder at the entrance to the Star Lake portage. He looked at us for a few seconds and then jumped down into the ferns and brush.

''Damm, its gone,'' I said, barely able to speak. As he got his camera out of his dry bag in the bow, John replied, ''no, he's still there.'' John was right; as I kept the canoe stable, just a few rods from shore, the wolf re-appeared on a rocky ledge to the left of the portage mouth.

It was magnificent! It looked at us, took a few more steps, and then just stood there and stared at us. We stared back in amazement. This close encounter probably lasted about 30 seconds, but time seemed to stop. The wolf finally ambled out of sight and was gone.

John's long lens had broken earlier in our trip and when the photos were developed, they weren't as close up as we had hoped. Since I'm an addicted bird watcher, I always have binoculars at the ready. The image of the wolf completely filled my field of vision. It was a sight I will never forget.

According to the International Wolf Center in Ely, 98% of Eastern Timber Wolves are gray. That is why their common name is Gray Wolf. (There is also a critically-endangered Red Wolf, which once roamed the Gulf states, but sadly now is very rare.) Only 2% of wolves in northern Minnesota/southern Ontario are black or white. On top of that, we saw it at nearly high noon - 12:03 p.m. to be exact - making it all the more unusual. My only other sighting of a wolf in a natural setting occurred in 1999 when I caught a very brief glance of one along the side of the Gunflint Trail.

For several days before our encounter at the Star Lake portage, we had seen wolf prints in the mud along several of the more remote trails. I know it's difficult to tell the difference between the paw print of a wolf and a large dog. On several previous trips, I had seen canine prints and secretly hoped that they had been left by a wolf, only to see an Irish Setter with another party. But this time, I knew that these had to be wolf prints. There were no other human prints. Janice Matichuk, the Cache Bay ranger, later told us that she thought we may have been the first group through some of these portages all summer (and we were there the week before Labor Day).

I had hoped that we would be able to see a wolf and kept my eyes open every minute. The fact that we were on a tandem trip and traveled quietly increased our chances. Janice told us that one other group reported seeing a black wolf. The outfitter that had provided our launch to Cache Bay said that several of their Quetico groups had heard wolves howling at night.

Where Wolves?
Wolves once covered almost all of the world north of the equator. They lived in a wide variety of habitats - forests, prairies, tundra, and grasslands. They were absent only in the tropics and deserts. In North American, there were 20 subspecies.

Native Americans considered Brother Wolf to be a spiritual creature, which prayed to the moon and could teach men much about survival. Europeans had a very different attitude toward wolves. They saw it as an evil creature to be feared. They brought with them the Old World legends of werewolves and vampires.

Wolves were hunted, trapped, and poisoned to near extinction. The federal and state governments paid a bounty for each wolf killed. The state of Minnesota paid bounties for each wolf killed up until 1964. By the early 1900's wolves were nearly exterminated throughout its normal range in the eastern US. The statistics are shocking. It was eliminated from 95% of its historical range in the US, 100% in Mexico, and 15% in Canada. Today, wolves are found only in northeastern Minnesota, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Alaska, Canada, and the northern portions of Wisconsin, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington, and Montana.

Canus Lupis, or the Eastern Timber Wolf, is the largest member of the Canidae, or Canine family. It looks somewhat like a large German shepherd, but is more lanky and long-legged. Its fur is a grizzled gray mixture of gray, white, black and brown hairs. It has a long, bushy tail that usually has a black tip.

Timber Wolves are 26-38 inches tall at the shoulder and 4 - 6 feet long (tail included). They weigh between 60-130 pounds, with the males being larger and heavier than the females.

Wolf or Coyote?
Wolves are sometimes confused with coyotes. However, they generally inhabit different areas. Coyotes are extending their range and now inhabit all of the Lower 48 states. They are able to live close to urban areas. Wolves can be found only in wilderness areas. Coyotes are substantially smaller than wolves, and are only 3 - 4 feet long and weigh just 20-50 pounds.

Another good field sign to distinguish between coyotes and wolves is how their tails are held while traveling. Wolves hold their tails horizontally and never hold their tail aloft like a dog. Coyotes, on the other hand, hold their tail down while jogging. Wolves also have pointed and relatively short ears, while a coyote's ears are more pointed and relatively long.

A wolf pack has a large home territory of 100-260 square miles, depending upon food resources available. They travel this territory at regular intervals along established trails of deer, moose, and elk. Except for the migratory caribou, wolves travel more often and for greater distances than any other terrestrial mammal. They can cover 45 miles in a day. The only time a pack stops moving is for the birth of pups, usually from April to July. When the pups are old enough to move, the pack resumes its travels.

Wolf Territory
The territory of neighboring packs may sometimes overlap slightly. Territorial borders are clearly marked by urine and feces. Packs usually manage to avoid each other.

Wolf packs range in size from 2 to 15, with the average size of 4 to 7. Packs are usually made up of family members and relatives. The strongest (alpha) male is the leader. All the members of the pack help care for the young, although only the alpha male and the alpha female will breed.

Mating takes place between February and March. The litter may be from 5 to 14, but the average is 7. The pups are born between April and June in an underground den. They emerge about one month later. When adults return from the evening hunt, the pups howl and bite the adult's noses to stimulate them to regurgitate the food.

Wolves are great hunters and successful predators. Even in the harsh northern winters, they don't hibernate or put on excess fat to survive. Instead, they rely on their remarkable hunting skills.

Wolves are famous as hunters of the deer family. They feed on deer, moose, elk, caribou, and mountain sheep. However, they also eat small rodents, beavers, snowshoe hare, skunk, fish, birds, snakes and lizards. Like other carnivores, they also eat a variety of plants and fruit to get vitamins and minerals. They feast on various berries, grasses, flower tops, mushrooms, and lichens.

Wolves and Moose
Wolves use different hunting methods on different types of prey. They will follow a caribou herd until they can spot a weak or sick animal. Since mountain sheep can run up a steep and icy cliff when threatened, wolves hunt for them in surprise attacks from above.

A moose can weigh ten times as much as a wolf. A healthy moose can defend itself well with its massive antlers and sharp hooves. If a moose stands its ground and fights to defend itself, a pack will usually move on to easier prey. Wolves prefer to make a moose run so that it cannot kick. They then bring it down by attacking it from behind.

Wolves usually hunt cooperatively. Since most prey can outrun them, they don't use long chases. If they can't capture their prey within 1000 yards, they usually give up. They prefer to surprise or ambush their prey.

Symbiosis in Nature
Wolves frequently look up towards the sky for signs of crow, ravens, or vultures, which might be circling over a dead or injured animal. There is a well-documented symbiotic relationship between wolves and these birds. These carrion - eating birds can spot food easily from above, but they need a predator like the wolf to open the carcass for them.

The tracks of a wolf are hard to distinguish from a dog, since both have four toes with nonretractable claws. Wolf tracks are usually wider and larger than a similar-sized dog. The foreprint is 4 - 5 inches long and the hindprint is slightly smaller. Its normal walking stride is 30 inches.

Not Man's Best Friend!
Historically, wolves have been severely persecuted by humans. Because of this they tend to be shy and avoid contact with people. There has never been a documented case of a healthy, wild wolf killing a person in North America. There is a far greater chance of a person being killed by lightening, a bee sting, or a car collision with a deer or moose than of being attacked by a wolf. Wolves have much more to fear from us than we have to fear from them.

The largest concentration of wolves close to the Boundary Waters area is at Algonquin Provincial Park, located about four hours north of Toronto. This park has 150-170 wolves. Half of its 38 packs have territories which extend beyond the boundaries of the park. Although protected inside the park, Canada has no Endangered Species Act. Wolves can be hunted at any time. There was no limits or quotas on the numbers on wolves taken. Each year, 35-40 wolves who wander outside the protection of the park are killed.

Wolves in Minnesota have fared better. Minnesota is the only one of the 48 contiguous states where the wolf was never exterminated. Probably because the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is so inaccessible, wolves in northeastern Minnesota were never wiped out. The wolf population never fell below about 650. However, before settlers began their deliberate policy of extermination, there were somewhere between 4000 to 8000 wolves in Minnesota.

Not Endangered Any More?
The Eastern Timber Wolf was listed as ''endangered'' in Minnesota by the US Secretary of the Interior in 1967. Yet, it was protected from hunting only in Superior National Forest. In 1974 it was listed as ''endangered'' under the Endangered Species Act and given full protection. Today, the population has shown a remarkable comeback. There were 2450 wolves in Minnesota in 1997, mostly in the northeastern corner, and their numbers are growing by about 100 per year. The Minnesota State Department of Natural Resources is working on a plan to ''delist'' or remove its ''endangered'' status.

The International Wolf Center in Ely recently measured public attitudes towards wolves in Minnesota. Seventy per cent of those surveyed indicated that the wolf symbolized to them the beauty and wonder of nature. A strong majority indicated that there were morally opposed to the harvesting of wolves for their fur. They also believed that seeing or hearing a wolf in the wild would be among the greatest experiences of their lives.

For us, it was. For two guys from the Chicago area, the unexpected sight of a Timber Wolf at a remote Quetico lake was an experience never to be forgotten.

 

       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine
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