The wolf trackers: Wisconsin couple has been at it for 20 years

JANESVILLE, Wis. — Earlier this month, when snow still cradled roads in frozen Juneau County, Emily and Larry Scheunemann searched for signs of large meat-eaters.

On a quiet road, they found paw prints advancing in a straight line, then disappearing under drifting snow.

“Could be a wolf,” Emily said, bending down and carefully measuring the size of the prints with a ruler.

For 20 years, the Scheunemanns of rural Whitewater have been tracking gray wolves in winter in remote corners of the state, The Janesville Gazette reported.

The volunteers are among almost 150 citizen scientists across Wisconsin who help the state DNR determine the number, distribution and territories of wolves.

“They are the backbone of our wolf-monitoring program,” said Scott Walter, large carnivore specialist with the DNR.

As wolf numbers have grown and expanded, it has become impossible for DNR staff alone to properly survey them.

In the mid-1990s, DNR staff developed a volunteer-tracking program to give residents a chance to submit notes from the field.

“In large part, this is what we base our wolf count on,” Walter said.

The DNR also looks at information provided by radio-collared wolves, recorded wolf howls, reports of wolves from the public and photos of wolves on outdoor cameras.

Snow-track surveys also have been used to determine where fishers, bobcats and other forest carnivores are located.

For Emily and Larry, sleuthing for wolves is a passion they take seriously.

In the area assigned to them by the DNR, they look for signs of canis lupus three times each winter. Signs include tracks, scat and urine in the snow.

The retired teachers went on their first tracking trip in 1999, when it was 16 degrees below zero. They drove five hours to Clark County to do the searching but found no evidence of wolves.

They almost gave up.

Eventually, they met Linda Nelson, an experienced tracker near Eau Claire, who encouraged and mentored them.

Over the years, the Scheunemanns also have taken classes with internationally known wolf experts L. David Mech and Jim Halfpenny and have seen wolves in the Northwest Territories and Yellowstone National Park.

Learning how to make sense of prints in the snow was a gradual process, but Larry calls his wife an exceptional tracker.

Emily has a gift for seeing clues that many of us would miss. She reads her paw prints like a true detective and never exaggerates about what she finds.

“When I say there’s a wolf, there’s a wolf,” she said, while examining possible wolf tracks in Juneau County. “It’s not easy to find them. Often we have to search and search, and we still don’t find them.”

Once they followed what they thought were four sets of wolf tracks, until the tracks suddenly disappeared. Emily and Larry concluded the tracks were made by dogs, and the tracks disappeared when the dogs jumped into the back of a truck.

“At first, we were constantly fooled by dog tracks,” Larry said.

Wolves usually travel in straight lines, while dogs zig-zag. Wolves also have the largest feet among the canids, which include coyotes and dogs.

In 2017-18, mid-winter data from the DNR showed 905 to 944 wolves in the state.

“We recognize this is before the breeding season,” Walter said. “Last summer, we had more than 1,000 wolves in the state. Over the course of summer, fall and winter, some will die, and some of the younger wolves will disperse.”

This year’s mid-winter count will be released in two months.

The state’s wolf management plan, first published in 1999 and modified in 2006, originally called for a population goal of 350 wolves.

The plan is used to guide DNR wolf management.

Currently, the wolf in Wisconsin is protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the state does not have management authority.

But U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves all across the Lower 48 states.

Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the decision earlier this month.

If de-listing happens, wolf management will go back to the state.

“When the wolf is de-listed, we will re-engage in updating the management plan,” Walter said. “It is possible we will set a new goal, which will come about only with lots of public engagement.”

State laws related to managing wolves have shifted between protection measures and a hunting season, which opened in 2012 and closed two years later.

“When wolves are not federally protected, our state law requires that the DNR permit a wolf harvest season,” Walter said. “If the wolf is de-listed, we will begin the process of re-establishing a harvest season. By any reasonable biological measure, wolves have recovered in the Upper Midwest.”

Wolves are established across the entire northern third of Wisconsin and the Central Sand Plains region. Some are dispersing to southern Wisconsin and beyond, Walter said.

In addition to tracking in winter, Larry enjoys howling for wolves in spring and summer.

“Emily says I sound just like a wolf,” he said.

Larry’s bay is long and mournful, and he has successfully prompted wolves to respond.

“To get wolves to howl, you have to be in an area they are defending,” Emily explained. “They have to think you are a trespassing wolf. Their howling is a way of saying this is ours. Keep out.”

The Scheunemanns never grow weary of tracking or howling for wolves. Even if there are no wolves, they often find tracks of other animals, including bobcats and fishers. In spring and summer, they are surrounded by wildflowers and songbirds. They know there’s always something interesting to discover.

“There is so much to see” in nature, Emily said. “It’s much more than tracking wolves. It’s like a treasure hunt, and you never know what you are going to find.”

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