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Minnesota wolf population thrives

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I once followed a set of wolf tracks on a sandbar along the Good News River in southwestern Alaska. I wondered if the wolf was on the hunt or if it was a lone male searching for a territory or a mate, or was simply trying to avoid detection by the resident pack. Its great stride suggested all of the above.

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At one point I knelt down to take a closer look at the animal's paw print in the sand. It was enormous, to say the least. My hand fit neatly inside the pad of the track. "Here," I thought, "is where the wolf has lived for thousands of years."

The wolf lives in Minnesota, too. In fact, wolves once roamed all over the world. In North America, the wolf is only plentiful in Canada and Alaska, but a healthy and thriving population lives and hunts in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Wolves can also be found in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including Yellowstone National Park.

As many of you know by now, federal protection as a result of the 1973 Endangered Species Act was removed once again from wolves in Minnesota. From an estimated population of about 750 wolves inhabiting northern Minnesota during the 1950s to about 3,000 wolves today, Minnesota's wolf population has certainly recovered. No other place south of the Canadian border has more wolves than Minnesota.

The eastern gray wolf, or timber wolf as the animal is also called, is a striking animal that ranges in color from all black to all white, yet with most exhibiting grayish coloration. A male gray wolf can reach a weight of 120 pounds. Long-legged, males can stand nearly three feet tall at the shoulder and attain lengths close to seven 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 to 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 around six 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 with the howling.

Prey, which can be rabbits and hares, beaver 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 pack is on the hunt, the wolves try to remain downwind of their prey, especially when hunting the wary white-tailed deer. Deer possess as keen of a sense of smell as wolves, if not keener. But the wolf's advantage is an unmatched cunning and stamina. Where a deer can outrun a wolf, no deer can outdistance one. Wolves are known to lope for hours and miles at a time, seemingly never tiring, as they follow in pursuit of their prey.

I believe we should consider ourselves lucky to be living in a place where a thriving population of wolves still roam, howl and hunt deer in the deep woods. Their presence not only serves as proof that suitable and spacious wild places teeming with abundant game continue to persist, but also provides us an opportunity to observe their natural role in a healthy and functioning ecosystem as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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