Study to show where wolves roam
DULUTH - Angela Aarhus-Ward must be one of the few people in North America who receives e-mails from wolves.
She gets them twice a week from three wolves roaming the woods just north of Duluth. Short e-mails. Nothing chatty.
They tell Aarhus-Ward, a wildlife research biologist with the 1854 Treaty Authority, where the wolves have been for the previous three days. Aarhus-Ward plots those GPS coordinates on her maps.
Minnesota has 40 years of data about wolves that live in the wilderness of Superior National Forest. Aarhus-Ward is doing a three-year study focusing on wolves that live near urban areas -- specifically Duluth. She wants to know how their pack sizes and pack territories might be different than those farther north.
"This can only help us as we manage the wolf," she said. "We're managing both people and wolves. We have to look at these areas for potentially different management strategies than what would be used in a wilderness area."
"I think that's going to be a new trend in wildlife biology -- looking at this urban/rural interface. We're seeing that out West with cougars," said Seth Moore, tribal fish and wildlife biologist at the Grand Portage band of Lake Superior Chippewa at Grand Portage.
Right now, the gray wolf remains on the Endangered Species List, managed by the federal government. But it's likely Minnesota's wolves will someday be managed by the state and by tribal agencies such as the 1854 Treaty Authority. The agency is a natural resources management arm for the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Moore, at Grand Portage, also has two wolves collared under the same research study. He wants to learn how wolf densities fluctuate with deer and moose populations on the 47,000-acre reservation.
John Erb, wolf and furbearer biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, welcomes more data about Minnesota wolves.
"There's lots of data from Northeastern Minnesota, from Dave Mech, but it pertains more to the undeveloped portions of wolf range. That's true of a lot of wolf research historically. Getting data on wolves from a variety of landscapes is good," Erb said.
FIVE PACKS IDENTIFIED
Aarhus-Ward has just finished the second year of the three-year study. So far, she has trapped and put GPS transmitting collars on eight wolves. Three of them still are sending her e-mails through an Argos satellite. The wolves' positions are recorded twice daily and those locations are e-mailed to Aarhus-Ward every three days.
The collars aren't cheap. They cost about $4,000 each, plus another $1,000 for the satellite service. They can be recovered if an animal dies, and they're programmed to drop off after two years. Aarhus-Ward can then reuse them.
Money for the $250,000 study comes from a tribal wildlife grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The grant is to the Grand Portage band, and the 1854 Treaty Authority is a project partner.
It's too early to draw final conclusions from the study, but Aarhus-Ward already has learned a lot about packs that roam just north of Duluth. She has identified five wolf packs with territories near Independence, Whiteface Reservoir, Pequaywan Lake, Hulligan Lake (north of Duluth off St. Louis County Highway 4) and Stewart Lake southwest of Brimson. A pack consists of two or more wolves, and the average for Minnesota is five. A pack's territory is about 40 square miles.
"Some territories are pretty small -- less than 25 square miles -- and my hypothesis is that wolves would have smaller territories closer to Duluth where high densities of deer occur," Aarhus-Ward said.
She would like to trap a wolf closer to Duluth to see if packs are traveling into the city. So far she's been unsuccessful in trapping closer to town.
While most wolves remain in their regular territories, one wolf that Aarhus-Ward collared had wanderlust. He traveled about 175 miles in one month, moving from a pack near Whiteface to an area near Cass Lake.
"He has established himself in that area," she said. "It'll be interesting to see if he finds a mate and establishes his own pack."
A DAY IN THE AIR
A regular beeping comes over the headsets in Al Buchert's Cessna 185 on a recent February morning. Aarhus-Ward has gone up with Buchert, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer and pilot, to see if she can spot a couple of her collared wolves from the air.
She has collared one wolf from each pack, and only by flying can she see how many other wolves might be in a pack.
The beeping is coming from Wolf No. 618548a southeast of Brimson. Aarhus-Ward trapped it in a rubber-cushioned foot-hold trap last November. It's a black wolf, a male, weighing about 85 pounds.
Buchert tips the Cessna on one wing and begins flying tight circles over a young spruce plantation.
"There it is," he says.
The wolf, jet black against the snowpack, is walking among the spruces. We circle for several minutes, watching him. For a time, he sits, casting a long shadow across the snow. Then he's walking again.
Aarhus-Ward spies a second wolf, a rusty gray one, within about 100 feet of the collared wolf. But that's all the wolves she sees at this location. She notes the observations in her records.
Earlier that morning, she and Buchert had seen another wolf from a pack near Whiteface Reservoir. It was traveling alone.
Flying to locate wolves is only a winter activity. Once the snow is gone, it's just too difficult to spot wolves from the air.
Summer and fall are trapping seasons for Aarhus-Ward.
"It's a challenge to trap wolves because you usually have just one shot when they're passing by your trap, so everything has to be just right," Aarhus-Ward said. "We're getting better at making that happen."
In two years, she's trapped 19 wolves, placing collars on eight of them. She doesn't collar juvenile wolves, preferring to collar adults that are more apt to be leaders of a pack.
She'll be trapping again this summer, hoping to find a few more wolves that will send her e-mails in coming years.