Tracking survey suggests a stable wolf population

Wausau, Wis. — The annual wolf-tracking survey meeting, held this year on April 19 in Wausau, marked the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by volunteers and DNR staff members. Trackers stomp through the snow from one survey “block” to the next (154 total blocks) looking not only for tracks, but signs of territorial markings and/or evidence of female wolves in estrus. The tracking surveys are used to determine the minimum number of wolves in each block.

While deep snow throughout much of the Northern Forest Region might have challenged volunteer trackers this year, continued late-season snowfalls may actually have aided efforts to get a reliable count, officials say.

“The winter was so long, we had a chance to clean up those areas where inadequate coverage occurred,” said Ron Schultz, of Woodruff, a DNR wolf trapper, who spends much of his time each winter tracking wolves in several of the 154 blocks where wolf packs are known to exist.

The event drew a variety of DNR staff members, volunteer trackers, and other stakeholder groups, such as the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, and Wisconsin Fur Trappers Association.

“We have quite an action-packed year ahead of us,” said Bill Vander Zouwen, who will chair the DNR’s revamped Wolf Advisory Committee that combines both the scientific work group with the previously separate stakeholder group. “There will be many opportunities for the public to get involved during the summer, fall, and winter of the coming year,” he said. These efforts include revising the wolf management plan – which includes addressing the state’s wolf population goal of 350 animals – and writing new administrative rules. 

Vander Zouwen introduced Dave MacFarland, the new carnivore specialist within the Bureau of Wildlife Management. MacFarland replaces Adrian Wydeven, veteran wolf biologist who recently shifted from the DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources to the Bureau of Wildlife.

MacFarland reviewed the recent wolf-monitoring document, which suggests an expanded attempt to come up with more precise numbers at less cost.

“Changes in monitoring are motivated by the cost of the program,” MacFarland said. “The current cost of $278,000 is not in line with what we are spending on other species.

“The primary cost is for telemetry – putting an aircraft up to chase them around,” he said. “We need to get high-quality data at a reduced cost.”

In the future, some data will be collected through different methods, MacFarland said. For example, it can be done genetically by the collection of scat, he said.

MacFarland also mentioned the collection of hair samples as another non-invasive way to obtain genetic material. “The follicles contain DNA, which will identify the animal,” he said.

MacFarland emphasized that the agency will continue to need volunteers and stated that Wydeven will continue to be a part of the effort. “Adrian is one of many DNR people to be involved in a collaborative effort, he said. “We don’t want to let that experience walk out the door.”

In addition to tracking activities, DNR Conservation Warden Dave Zebro said DNR wardens were involved in several law enforcement investigations. Thirty wolf-related investigations were conducted, with 10 citations issued related to hunting and trapping. Fourteen illegally harvested wolves were recovered, Zebro said.

Ralph Fritsch represented the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. He encouraged greater use of hunters and trappers in the counting procedures. “How accurate are these figures in establishing the current state wolf populations?” he asked. “Even though these are minimum number counts, how many areas within the state are not covered?

“(This could) greatly add to a more stable and accurate count, and hopefully give a number closer to maximum population numbers,” said Fritsch, who also serves on the Conservation Congress as a delegate from Oconto County.

MacFarland encourages more involvement in the tracking process.

“We couldn’t do it without a lot of volunteer help,” he said.

There are approximately 150 individuals doing the tracking, including a number of DNR employees. Several additional limited-term employees were hired this past year.

Dave Ruid, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, commented on the response to depredation claims.

“Our primary goal is to investigate complaints, produce documentation, and take action,” he said. “We must investigate complaints from the field within 48 hours.”

There were 184 complaints in 2012, of which 95 were verified as wolf kills, Ruid reported. Thirty-three farms had verified livestock depredations.

“In some cases, lethal abatement was used, and in others non-lethal,” Ruid said.

Ruid also discussed some of the methods used to verify complaints. “Cows bitten at the neck are usually coyotes – on the back, usually wolves.” An attack by a bear, while quite rare, would leave puncture holes much larger than either a coyote or wolf.

Wolf damage claims were down in 2012, according to Brad Koele, DNR wildlife biologist, who tracks depredation statistics. Total compensation was $140,000 in 2012, Koele said, down from 2011 when the payout was more than $300,000. “Totals for missing calves were way down,” Koele said. Landowner permits were the difference, he added. “We had the ability to give out landowner permits, which accounted for that (decline).”

One change for 2013, Koele said, is that everyone must allow public hunting and trapping access. While the new rule was generally well-accepted, there was some pushback from “a couple of landowners who objected.”

Wydeven conducted the block-by-block review of the tracking activity. As DNR wildlife biologist Jane Wiedenhoeft and her assistant announced the findings from each block, Wydeven annotated a yellow gummed label with the information, and then slapped it on a large state map in the appropriate spot.

A sample data input:

“Block 21: Dugan Lake, four with RLU (raised leg urination); no blood.” The RLU indicates territory marking, often in the shape of a rainbow, MacFarland said. The presence of blood may indicate a female wolf in estrus and an indication of breeding pairs.

The discussion is often brisk with input coming from a variety of sources. The Green Creek and Catawba packs in Zone 6 drew considerable attention, but finally agreement was reached that the total is five wolves for Green Creek Pack and two for Catawba Pack.

There were four wolves harvested in this block, Wiedenhoeft reported, somewhat of an oddity since Zone 6 has fewer wolves than in other areas. “We haven’t had a collared wolf down there for a while,” she added.

She noted that in the Little Rice Lake area in Block 67, an alpha wolf in the area was pushed out, then came back and established another pack in proximity to its original home range. “We have a soap opera over there,” Wiedenhoeft said.

By the end of the marathon event, the map of the northern and central forests on most of the 154 blocks was crowded with yellow stickers. The total wolf minimum count comes to 785 to 813 wolves. While officials acknowledge the actual wolf population is higher, tracking surveys are considered a valuable research tool.

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