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Original Issue


Flying high over the east fork of the Moose River, Richard Thiel listened for wolves. He sat behind the pilot, a map of northwestern Wisconsin spread across his knees, and followed the contours of the land. From 3,000 feet the woods below, with their snow-covered fire lanes and frozen creeks, looked like scrimshaw. On a clear day Thiel can pick up the beep-beep of any radio-collared wolf within a 16-mile radius. But this morning, in February 1981, the sky hummed with static.

Late in the previous spring, when these woods were hot and buggy, Thiel had trapped five wolves in this country, which is the southern-most timber wolf territory in the U.S. Before releasing the wolves, he fitted each with a lithium-powered radio collar. The collar transmits a signal that Thiel can pick up by means of antennae mounted on an airplane's wing struts. Now in winter, when wolves are most footloose, he was monitoring their range—eavesdropping from the sky in the morning and tracking on foot in the afternoon.

Flying north toward Solon Springs, Thiel picked up a faint pulse. He shouted over the engine's roar for the pilot to turn left and reduce altitude. The plane dipped down, converging on the transmitter until the signal was popping and the treetops were all a blur. Four white-tail deer were bedded down in a snowy clearing. At first glance Thiel mistook them for wolves. Then he spotted the pack, not 200 yards away. Loping through the snow, the wolves seemed oblivious of the deer and even the shadow of the plane passing overhead.

The Eastern timber wolf, or gray wolf (Canis lupus lycaon), once ranged over most of the eastern U.S., from Maine to as far south as Georgia. According to mammalogist Hartley Jackson, as many as 20,000 wolves may have roamed in what is now Wisconsin when it was a forest known to the pioneers as the Big Woods. That figure seems exaggerated, though probably it wouldn't have to the earliest settlers. Diaries tell of granddad beating wolves from his horse-drawn cutter with a buggy whip and of hysteria rushed along by the howling of wolves—literally at the cabin door.

When the Big Woods were finally cut down, the surviving wolves melted into the roadless northern counties. Then the Great Depression put many men out of city jobs and into the woods. Work crews cut roads into forests, opening them up to trappers and hardscrabble farmers who could make a $20 bounty on a wolf, half that for a pup. The few surviving wolves became celebrated oddities.

Finally, sentiment began to build to keep a few wolves in northern Wisconsin, and in 1957 the state lifted the bounty. But it was too late. The wolves had gone the way of the Big Woods.

Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, Thiel, now 28, was a century too late to hear the wolf at the door. He knew the animal as most of us do: the ancestral dog that has not come to leash. Pity has replaced fear where our large predators are concerned. Ask Thiel why he studies wolves and he's likely to say he feels sorry for them. Trapped, shot and poisoned on their former range, timber wolves had hung on in Minnesota and on Michigan's Isle Royale. But rumors persisted of an occasional wolf in northern Wisconsin—an uncertain glimpse, a few tracks on a sandy road.

Thiel began searching for these phantom wolves in the early '70s, spending summers and college weekends prowling the northern counties for wolf sign. He typed painstaking reports of his findings and sent them along, unsolicited, to the state's Department of Natural Resources. In August of 1974 Thiel and a fellow biology student at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, broadcast recorded wolf howls in the woods—using a tape player with the volume turned all the way up—to see if they could get a real wolf to howl back. One evening they were broadcasting from a canoe just after sunset, and they were about to quit for the night when a single timber wolf actually howled back. Thiel was so excited he forgot to start the tape on which they had hoped to get a recording of a howl. But he had some evidence! The next year, the state reclassified the wolf from extirpated to merely endangered.

Wisconsin's new wolves are almost certainly emigrants from neighboring Minnesota. Shut out by a sexually autocratic pack structure wherein only the dominant (alpha) pair breeds, the supposition goes, these loners headed southeast. They are the nucleus of Wisconsin's fragile wolf population. Thiel estimates there are fewer than 30 wolves in the state, but he believes Wisconsin could easily support as many as 100 in heavily wooded areas where they could stay out of trouble.

Now head of the DNR's wolf study, Thiel functions as something of a front man for the wolves. He travels the high school and wildlife-club circuit, showing slides and assuring his audience that wolves are "wonderful critters." Thiel, 6'2", with a reddish beard and a raptor's eyes, gives the impression of having just mushed into town. He shows slides of wolves and wolf scats. He calls himself a "scat man." The audience howls.

After one such presentation, I talked wolves with Thiel and hinted broadly that I'd like to go along the next time he cruised the woods.

"Wait till we get some tracking snow," he said.

Skidding down an unplowed forest road in Douglas County later that month, I kept my eyes peeled for wolf tracks. The three of us, Thiel, the driver, a softspoken DNR man named Larry Prenn and I, were sandwiched into a¾-ton pick-up. The snow was heavy and wet, good for tracking.

Earlier that morning Thiel had flown over a pack to the east; it was a tight group of seven wolves. Now we were driving the southern boundary of a pack with which Thiel had lost radio contact. Badly fragmented, this pack was down to a few wolves that seldom hung together. Thiel's only link to the group, a two-year-old male with ear-tag number 1187 and a radio collar, had been shot the week before. So now he had to track the remaining pack members on the ground.

Four white-tail deer, walking in that tentative gait suggesting high-heel shoes, ambled down the middle of the road about a quarter of a mile from the truck. Halfway to them, Prenn braked. "Wolf tracks," he said.

One set of tracks, left by a wolf going at a slow trot, led from a frozen swamp onto a fire lane. Thiel measured the track, four broad toes and claw points, which seemed indistinguishable to me from that of a large dog. But it was, Thiel said, definitely wolf, and judging from the frost in the toe depressions, it had been made the day before. Following the tracks down the road, we were rewarded with a wolf scat.

Wolves have a scent gland that allows their scats, like their urination, to serve as scent posts to mark their territory. Scat analysis can show what wolves are eating and whether times are good or lean. Thiel suspects the wolves round out a diet heavy in deer with snowshoe hare in the winter and beaver in the summer.

Prenn broke off a twig and pushed the scat into a paper bag marked with the date and location. The bag went into the back of the pick-up, joining at least 50 others. In the event of a sudden thaw, the truck was going to define a large territory of its own.

Since this scat was fairly fresh, Thiel decided to backtrack to see what the wolf had been up to. Lunging into some alder brush, we followed the tracks through knee-deep snow. Thiel took the lead. We kept close behind, stepping into his footprints so we wouldn't have to break our own trail. Wolves do the same thing to conserve energy. A seemingly lone set of tracks through deep snow may have accommodated an entire pack. In our party, Thiel had clearly assumed the alpha position. Had he been a wolf, his tail would have been flying high as he set a fast pace through the woods, stopping only occasionally to bark his position back to us.

Half a mile or so in, we broke through the alder into a bright spruce swamp. Thiel paused suddenly in a clearing where the snow cover was rumpled. He picked up a piece of bone lying there. Cordoning off the area with outstretched arms, Thiel started thinking out loud:

"It wasn't a deer kill. A fresh kill leaves too much pink snow. This was a single wolf just passing through when it got a whiff of something familiar. Over here." He indicated where the snow had been dug from under a bush, a possible scent post. "The wolf had cached a deer leg from an earlier kill beneath the snow here and remembered it when he sniffed the bush."

Thiel stooped and retrieved a leftover, a pair of fawn hooves, exquisite as tortoiseshell. He slipped them in his pocket and headed back to the truck. Not a few hunters take a dim view of the wolfs return to Wisconsin, because it's a rival predator. But a wolf will normally take one deer every 16 days, or about 25 a year, if he eats only deer—a minuscule cut of the venison.

Near Moose Junction we stopped to eat lunch on the warm hood of the truck. Thiel leaned back against the windshield. He said he was getting spring fever. He was anxious to trap again, particularly after losing number 1187.

When Thiel first set his traps near here, in May 1980, he worked with a young federal trapper from Minnesota. In 20 days they caught a lot of small animal and five timber wolves. One of these was a lanky yearling male, cinnamon colored, with a gray-and-white underside. They immobilized the wolf using a dart loaded with ketamine hydrochloride, a muscle relaxant, examined him, tagged his ear with his number and attached a radio collar around his neck.

"He was a real adolescent," Thiel said, "a gawky wolf with a skinny frame and big feet. Always off by himself.

"Within a pack, wolves have a definite personality range, but the wolves with collars are the only ones you really get to know. Everyone I work with knew 1187. All the pilots knew him. He had such a big range, over 100 square miles, and he wandered over all of it. Sometimes he'd trespass into another pack's territory and get kicked out. I worried about him because of the unwolfish things he'd do, like walking up to a pulp cutter, or trotting along a state highway a week before deer season. The big dope."

Thiel spoke with a mixture of irritation and affection, like a coach appraising a clumsy recruit with great potential. He had high expectations in regard to 1187. The wolf had been acting like an alpha male, not squatting to urinate, as subordinates do, but raising his leg to do it into the wind and assert his independence. This fact and the wolfs far-ranging habits led Thiel to believe 1187 had been ready to mate and form the nucleus of a new pack. But he was gone now, and with him the best laid plans.

"I knew he was going to get it," Thiel said, "and darned if he didn't."

The next morning the pilot called to say the ceiling was too low for him. Thiel was disappointed that he couldn't fly. On the ground he wouldn't sight any wolves; he'd have to be content with what they'd left behind.

They hadn't left much. The snow cover on Empire Swamp Road was crusting over. The clearest sign we came upon were our own footprints, which we'd made a few days before when we'd stopped for lunch.

Before checking out the Bear Lake pack, Thiel decided to stop to visit a farmer who had reported wolf tracks beside his cattle pasture. Alonzo Melton has a nice spread, 120 acres, mostly wooded, and it sits squarely on the boundary between two of Thiel's wolf packs. Melton wasn't home. His son led us through the snow to the north 40, where 10 Herefords were pastured, some apparently ready to calve. A few feet from the fenced cattle we startled crows feeding on a frozen gut pile, dumped after a butchering last fall. Animal tracks radiated from it like spokes on a wheel. One set was large and led into the surrounding forest. Thiel followed it a ways. When he returned he said simply, "They're wolf all right."

A documented case of wolf predation hasn't occurred in Wisconsin since 1976, when several sheep were killed about 10 miles from the Melton farm on the Tamarack River. But if the wolves take hold, Thiel knows that relations with livestock farmers could become strained, as they have in northern Minnesota, where wolves are numerous and are classified as threatened rather than endangered.

When we returned to the farmhouse, Melton was waiting by the back porch. Thiel told the farmer he could avoid some "potential wolf trouble" if he'd move the gut pile and bring in his cows when they were ready to calve.

Melton stood there doing a slow burn. He, in turn, had some advice for Thiel. He wanted the wolves trapped off his property, and he wanted them moved "real soon."

"Look," he said, "the deer are gone. The hunting's no good around here since the wolves moved in. And now that they've wiped out the deer, they'll come after my cows."

Thiel was looking skeptically at the head of a six-point buck propped on a woodpile. He told Melton that the state couldn't remove a wolf until there was an actual case of livestock predation. And he added that Wisconsin, unlike Minnesota, pays no compensation for wolf-killed livestock.

We seemed to be frozen in a familiar scenario: homesteader against bureaucrat. But the roles seemed miscast, the lines of opposition sharper than they needed to be.

"Look, I love wild animals," Melton said, "maybe more than you do. That's why I moved up here. But I need them cows to make a living."

Thiel tried to meet him halfway. He admitted that the law put the farmer in a tough position, and said that he would keep an eye on Melton's farm to see if any more wolf tracks appeared.

Slowly the scenario dissolved. As we left, Melton suggested that someday Thiel stop to talk to his neighbor, who also raised livestock.

"Only he isn't likely to be as receptive as me," Melton said.

Thiel didn't stop at the other farmhouse but drove on to Bear Lake Road to look for tracks. He was especially interested in locating a female that had been with 1187 the night he was shot. A week before, a couple living in a lakeside cottage had awakened to their dog's barking. As isolated people will do, the man went to the door with a rifle in his hands. He saw a doglike figure at the end of his dock and raised his rifle. Later he would say he thought he was shooting at a dog that had been running deer.

As the cottage door opened, 1187 left the dock and walked north a short distance along the lakeshore. When the door slammed, the wolf turned back to face the noise. The bullet entered its sternum and tore through its heart. A second wolf, which Thiel believes may have been 1187's potential mate, ran off across the lake. The man fired again but missed. When he saw the black radio collar and ear tag on 1187, he drove to the nearest phone, called the warden and said he'd mistakenly killed a wolf.

Despite setbacks like this and those years of doing unpaid, unofficial research, Thiel considers himself lucky, because Wisconsin is now studying wolves and he is in charge of the project. He goes about his work furiously, for fear that his luck will soon disappear, because federal wildlife research funds have been cut and state money is running out.

Before turning in on the last night of my visit, Thiel suggested that we do a little howling. Why not? We drove down a dark back road, close to a sighting Thiel had made from the air that morning.

In summer Thiel howls to locate a pack, knowing he's found it when the responding howls are accompanied by the higher-pitched yips of pups. One needn't sound like a wolf to elicit a response; some biologists make contact using a siren. But Thiel wants to sound like the real thing. He has practiced howling in his bedroom to a recording of wolf howls, as if it were one of those Berlitz discs that teach how to speak a foreign language.

Out on the road Thiel let out a low growl that quickly climbed several octaves into a long, long, hurtful wail that filled the woods and left me disquieted. There was no response. He supposed that the pack had moved on. But he tried three more times. The last howl struck me as particularly plaintive, laden with greetings and apologies across species lines, and all the more moving for the silence that followed.