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Minnesota is fortunate to be home to wolves

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Minnesota is fortunate to be home to wolves
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

In 1978 a nonfiction book was published, titled "Of Wolves and Men." The book's author was Barry Lopez. Here's a book that anyone with an interest in wolves should read. Lopez takes his readers on a historical journey about the tense relationship that has always existed between wolves and men.

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One of my favorite passages in the book was a story of how a group of school children were introduced to one particular wolf. The students were first asked by their teacher to each draw a picture of a wolf. As you might expect, their pictures depicted savage-looking wolves complete with large teeth, snarling muzzles, and angry eyes. Following this exercise, a trainer brought a leashed wolf into the classroom.

After allowing the children to observe and pet the wolf, and watching as the trainer led the animal out of the classroom, the pupils' teacher asked them once more to draw a picture of a wolf. This time, instead of illustrating nasty, fierce-looking wolves, the children drew entirely different depictions of wolves.

The second drawings, unlike the first, underscored how peoples' preconceived notions can be influenced by reality. The children's' subsequent drawings revealed wolves of a gentler variety. Sharp teeth were replaced with oversized feet. The latter notable attribute, common in all wolves, must have made a mighty impression on the children.

Minnesota is home to the gray wolf, or timber wolf, as they are also called. Growing large, a male gray wolf can reach a weight of 120 pounds. Long-legged, males can stand nearly 3 feet tall at the shoulder and attain lengths close to 7 feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail.

Highly intelligent pack animals, wolves are well known for living out their lives together in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to as many as 30. Each pack establishes well-marked territories that are obvious to adjacent wolf packs. The markings, which are not evident to most people, include visual signs like scat, as well as scent markings that involve urinating on noticeable objects such as trees, stumps and rocks.

The size of a pack's territory is highly variable. In fact, territories for individual wolf packs in Alaska and Canada can be as large as 300-1,000 square miles. Most packs in northern Minnesota, where some 3,000 wolves are thought to exist, usually have much smaller territories of no more than 150 square miles in size.

Not long ago, in January and February, sometimes as late as March, mating took place among dominant male and female wolves of each of the respective packs throughout Minnesota. Pups, born about two months later and typically inside burrows dug by the mated pairs, usually number around four to six per litter.

The pups, like all members of the canid family, including domestic dogs, are born helpless, with their eyes and ears closed.

The youngsters remain inside the den for up to eight weeks, nursing first, and then gradually feeding on prey brought to them -- either in regurgitated form or whole.

Wolf pups behave like all pups -- again, domestic dogs included. As their rapidly growing bodies develop, the energetic pups frolic and roughhouse with one another continuously. And, as is often related by wildlife research biologists, the sole reason for all this play has more to do with preparing them for real-life dramas that will inevitably prevail once they reach adulthood. Those dramas, of course, are when the innocence of youth is replaced by the struggle of everyday survival and finding food.

At about 6 months of age, wolf pups begin to join their pack on the necessary hunts that take place when the need to eat arises. These hunts commonly begin with much anticipation, excitement and howling. Howling, so important in wolf society, serves to "rally the troops" and to warn other nearby packs to stay clear of their territory. Even smaller pups, too young to assist with the actual hunt, join in the howling.

Prey, which can be rabbits and hares, beavers and even mice and voles, are most often larger animals such as moose, deer, elk and bison. In Minnesota, the number one prey species for gray wolves is the white-tailed deer.

Once the members of the pack are on the hunt, they try to remain downwind of their quarry, especially when hunting ungulates like deer. Deer possess as keen a sense of smells as wolves, if not keener. But the wolf's advantage is unmatched cunning and stamina. Where a deer can outrun a wolf, no deer can out-distance one. Wolves are known to lope for hours and miles at a time, seemingly never tiring, as they follow in pursuit of their prey.

Wolves normally attack large prey like deer from behind. Biting at the rump weakens the animal. When the prey is sufficiently weakened, and the time is right, wolves attack the throat and nose of the deer until it can be brought down.

Feeding begins almost immediately by all members of the pack. Depending on the size of the prey and pack, individual wolves will gorge themselves with as much as 20 pounds of meat, and, in so doing, live for another day.

Indeed, as far as this writer is concerned, we should consider ourselves lucky to be living in a state where a thriving population of wolves still roam, howl and hunt in the deep woods. Their presence serves not only as testament to suitable and expansive wild places, but, as well, a vital link within a natural and functioning system where prey and predator coexist.

For more and interesting reading about the wolf, including a photo essay of a wolf moose-kill, visit www.isleroyalewolf.org/wolfhome/home.html

Until next week, get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

--

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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