Looking for answers: Researchers monitoring wolf movements near Duluth
Christina Maley followed the drag marks across the logging road and peered into a dense tangle of spruce and balsam fir. She saw something moving in the shady undergrowth.
"It's a wolf!" said Maley, wildlife research and management specialist at the 1854 Treaty Authority based in Duluth.
A big grin spread across her face. A wolf was exactly what she was hoping to see. Maley and two of her colleagues were just a few miles north of Duluth on Tuesday morning, checking 21 wolf traps they had placed the day before on county and state land.
Their work is part of an ongoing research project to trap and place GPS collars on wolves in packs near Duluth — some not far from the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District landfill off Rice Lake Road.
Maley, leading the project, has now trapped five wolves since June 5. She had trapped another in early spring.
One purpose of the study is to provide information on wolf pack size and territory that helps the 1854 Treaty Authority work with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to develop wolf population estimates. Another aim is to learn more about how wolves move about on borders between rural and urban areas, Maley said.
The project builds upon a similar study from 2007 to 2011 by Angela Aarhus-Ward, who then worked for the 1854 Treaty Authority and is now with the DNR.
But at that moment on Tuesday morning, Maley and colleagues Andrew Edwards and Saranda Oestreicher were focused on sedating and collaring the 73-pound male wolf they would come to know as No. 2829.
The wolf, a dusky black, tan and gray, had placed its right front paw in a large foothold trap with rubber pads on its jaws sometime after the trap was set on Monday afternoon. He had dragged the trap across the road and into the brush until its twin grappling hooks snagged — as they were designed to — on brush and trees.
The wolf was alert but not struggling when the researchers discovered it just after 11 a.m. Tuesday. Maley began drawing the drugs that would sedate the wolf, placing them at the tip of a 3-foot-long pole syringe. Edwards, director of resource management at the 1854 Treaty Authority, grabbed a long metal "Y-pole" he would use to further restrict the wolf's movement. Oestreicher, a fish and wildlife aide at the agency, logged all of the team's actions on a clipboard.
Edwards approached the wolf, now cowering in the brush, and pinned it with his Y-pole. Maley eased toward the wolf cautiously from the other side and injected the sedative into its left hip. The wolf hardly flinched. The team walked out of the woods to let the injection work.
Maley still finds that approaching and sedating a trapped and very live wolf is anything but routine.
"It gets your heart racing for sure," she said. "It's exciting, and I like to do it."
She had trapped three wolves last fall before continuing the project this spring. The work is being done under a $142,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for endangered species research. The project will continue until all 10 GPS collars — $2,300 each — have been placed and as long as they are still sending information.
Once "on the air," the wolves' collars begin sending back emails that show the wolves' locations four times per day. Researchers try to trap one wolf from a pack. The GPS information, coupled with images from trail cameras and winter aerial monitoring, gives the team an idea of both pack size and pack movements, Maley said. Tracking the animals' movements back at the office is fascinating, she said.
"After I put my first collar out, I couldn't stop staring at my computer," she said. "It's so neat to see where they go. I check it every morning."
Setting the traps
Traps are placed in loose gravel at the edge of logging roads. The roads are usually on county or state land and are often behind locked gates. Signs are placed near the roads to warn people that the traps have been set. (One dog was incidentally trapped this spring. Maley met with the dog's owner. The dog recovered and its owner returned the trap, Maley said.)
Setting a foothold wolf trap is an art. The traps are No. 7 EZ Grip double long-springs. The rubberized jaws are designed to clamp onto the toe pads of a wolf's foot.
To place the trap, a shallow hole is dug in the gravel at the road's edge to bury the grappling hooks and a short chain. That is covered, and the trap itself is set and laid in the depression.
The trap is covered with a layer of gravel and smoothed over, making it entirely invisible. Pieces of wood or grass, or small rocks, are set at either side so the wolf will have to step between them and onto the pan of the trap, which triggers the jaw to snap shut. A small piece of bait — usually rancid bobcat, beaver or deer meat or a commercial trapping lure — is placed just beyond the trap.
When the wolf steps in the trap, the trap closes and the wolf runs a short distance until the grappling hooks snag in the brush. Typically, a wolf trapped this way doesn't struggle. Traps are checked every day.
(The agency ceases trapping once grouse season starts in the fall, Maley said, and hunters are in the woods with their dogs.)
Earlier on Tuesday, Maley and her team had checked 10 traps. Some hadn't been visited. At some, the trap had been pawed at but wasn't sprung. A couple had been sprung without catching a wolf.
"It's so surprising how smart animals and wolves are," Maley said. "Sometimes, they kind of know something is down there. An educated wolf is hard to catch."
She was discouraged earlier on Tuesday after seeing so many sets ignored or unsuccessfully sprung.
"Dang," she said. "They're onto us already."
But No. 2829 wasn't so lucky. Now fully sedated, he was carried from the woods in a nylon sling by Maley, Edwards and Oestreicher. In a shady spot at the edge of the road, they laid him on the nylon to work him up, first inserting ice bags between his legs to keep him cool.
He appeared long and leggy.
"I'd say he's a yearling, at most 2," Edwards said. "He has that lanky look to him."
The team took blood samples and hair samples from the wolf as he breathed easily, his chest rising and falling, his eyes closed. They measured him (nearly 5 feet, nose to tip of tail). They set the GPS collar and placed it around his neck. They inserted yellow tags in each ear, 28 on the left, 29 on the right. Already, they had weighed him — 73 pounds. That's about average for the wolves she's trapped, Maley said. The lightest was 63, the heaviest 100. She inserted an identifying microchip near the wolf's right front paw.
All of this was done with one eye on the clock. The researchers would have about 45 minutes before the sedative began to wear off.
About 45 minutes after the sedative had been injected, the team moved the wolf off the road and into the shade of a balsam fir. Maley injected a serum to reverse the sedative's effects. They watched as the wolf regained its wits and stumbled a short distance before lying down again. Its eyes blinked, but it lay there for several minutes recovering.
Maley and crew gathered their gear and headed for their trucks. They would check another trap along that road before returning to check on No. 2829. That trap was untouched. When the team returned to original site, Maley cautiously walked into the woods to where the wolf had been lying. She turned to her colleagues.
"He's gone," she said.
She might never see him again.
No problem. He'll be emailing her regularly.
The 1854 Treaty Authority
The 1854 Treaty Authority is an inter-tribal natural resource management organization that manages the off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights of the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa in territory ceded under the Treaty of 1854.