As the trail descended to the Cascade River, we started following the paired tracks of some member of the weasel family. At just under two inches long they were too small for a fisher, too large for a mink, and the tracks bounded up and around trees, over roots, and along logs. These were the tracks of a pine marten. I live just north of a pine marten recovery area in the Chequamegon National Forest, but I haven't seen any sign of them yet. Last year researchers in Wisconsin only found evidence for 9-10 martens, and it is a state-listed endangered species. In Minnesota, however, their population has recovered from almost zero in the 1920's to over 10,000 animals today. Biologists used to think that these tree-climbing, bird-eating weasels only lived in conifer forests. Now we've learned that they can live in deciduous forests, too, so I'm hoping that Minnesota's abundant martens will find it easier to expand their range to the southeast!
Martens are not the only animals to benefit under state and federal endangered species protection. Bald eagles were delisted in 2007, and are once again a common sight. Gray wolves were extirpated from Wisconsin after extensive bounty hunting in the early 20th Century, but Minnesota always had a small population. With the help of protection under the Endangered Species Act, wolves in the Western Great Lakes Region are fully recovered. The Wisconsin DNR estimates that around 800 wolves now live in the Wisconsin.
On December 28th, 2011, the USFWS published a document that delists wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. The rule will take effect on January 27th, 2012, after a 30-day waiting period when the public can comment. If all goes as planned, wolves will join twenty-three other species that have been delisted due to recovery. This is not the first time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has attempted to delist the wolves, but perhaps now they've tweaked enough of the details to make it stick.
Wolves haven't recovered their entire historical range, and may never do so. I can sense a difference in a forest where they are and a region where they are not. Even in the primeval redwoods of California, or the rugged mountains of New England, I feel a sense of loss because I cannot even hope to see wolf tracks.
On this recent backpacking trip I was not necessarily eager to see the tracks of a large carnivore, but there they were. Lined up down the center of the trail, going our direction, were four-inch, four-toed, four-clawed wolf tracks. My skin tingled and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. More tracks joined the first, and for most of our hike we walked beside them as the pack traveled, explored, split and rejoined.
Wolves elicit many different feelings in folks, from respect and awe to fear and loathing. I'm in the first camp. I never tire of measuring their large paws against my own hand, or trying to interpret their hunting strategy from their tracks. Still, I was happy to notice that the tracks did not follow the trail all the way to our campsite.
Long after dark, warm in our sleeping bags, we listened intently to the night noises as the wind picked up. Far off, on the other side of the river, a lone wolf howl rose up on the wind. I shivered nervously, happily, in my shelter of thin nylon. Aldo Leopold, a great conservationist with strong ties to Wisconsin, was perceptive when he observed that "only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf."