Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wolf Chills

Sometimes, when the temperatures rise above 80 degrees, and the humidity hovers around 100%, I have to imagine myself in a happier, cooler place. You might be a heat-loving fan of summer, and I am too, sometimes. But when the breeze dies, the bugs flock, and the sweat drips, I find myself dreaming of a snowy wonderland.

Sometimes I’ll flip through old photographs on the computer to help jog my memories of winter. Here’s me on snowshoes, with a frozen elk leg strapped to my pack, towering mountains in the background. Here’s me, bundled so that barely an inch of skin shows, scarf and hat crusted with driven snow, sitting on the top of a butte near a spotting scope. You can’t tell from the photo, but my fingers and toes are numb.

You may think this sounds like pure misery, and I have to admit, there were moments, but it was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Those photos are from my month in Yellowstone National Park as a volunteer with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. Every March since the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, paid and volunteer researchers have collected data on the behavior and biology of the wolves.

On a typical day, my team of three would wake up before the sun, and drive our Suburban into the park. The roof of the vehicle was mounted with an “omni” antenna that can receive signals from the wolves’ radio collars from all directions. If we heard a beep from one of our pack members, we would pull over at the nearest observation point and use the directional or “H” antenna to pinpoint which direction to look. Then we would set up our spotting scopes and scan the rugged landscape for the fifteen members of our pack.

Once we spotted the wolves, our job was to keep them in view for as long as possible and to record every aspect of their behavior by the minute. Talking into little personal recorders, we sounded like this: 7:02a.m. SLEEP. 7:03a.m. REST. 7:10a.m. MILL. 7:11 a.m. RALLY. 7:13 a.m. HOWL. 7:15 a.m. TRAVEL. For 50% of the time that we had them in view, our pack was either resting (heads up) or sleeping (heads down).

The excitement came when they rallied and howled. This usually meant that the pack was getting ready to travel and hunt. They loped across the hillsides single file, testing elk among the pine trees. Generally, if an elk stood its ground, the pack would pass it by. Once I watched as the pack surprised a herd of cow elk, who panicked and broke into a run. Deep, crusty snow forced the elk to run single-file in packed game trails, and the wolves gave chase. Within seconds, the wolves had brought down a cow at the back of the line, and the rest of the herd was out of sight.

After a few days of watching first the wolves and then the scavengers turn her body into theirs, we snowshoed into the valley to collect data on the kill. It was soon obvious why she had gone down: one of her legs had broken and re-healed, and her bone marrow was pink and jelly-like, indicating malnutrition.

It was simply amazing to watch nature in her finest in the first-ever National Park. Bald eagles, golden eagles, magpies, and ravens, red foxes, coyotes, and even grizzly bears all feasted off the wolves’ scraps. Herds of elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison, and pronghorns moved through the snowy hills and plains. The sun glowed red on the horizon twice a day, unless it was blotted out by swirling snow.

One of the most thrilling events took place near our observation point above Geode Marsh. I was hiking along a side hill in the swirling snow, when over the woosh of the wind I heard a mournful cry. It was soon joined a chorus of rising howls that made the very air around me tingle.

Much nicer than 85 degrees with 95% humidity!

Wolves in Wisconsin howl, too, and you can attempt to hear them with us on July 14. Adrian Wydeven and Sarah Boles, Wisconsin wolf experts, will give a presentation after dinner at Lakewoods Resort, and then guide us into the Chequamegon National Forrest to howl for wolves. Call 715-798-3890 for details and to register!

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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