Wolves Take Back the Wild

The Wolf Watchers
  |  Gorp.com
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The members of the wolf project team in Yellowstone National Park get very busy come November. As temperatures start to drop and snow begins to fall at higher elevations, the park's majestic elk start coming down from the mountains. Since elk meat is the main component of their diet, the gray wolves naturally follow. And the wolf watchers, supervised by team leader Dr. Doug Smith, follow the wolves.

In addition to bringing the wolves down out of the mountains, the winter makes the animals more visible. The clean, white snow makes the wolves' grey, white and black fur stand out."You can see them four or five times better," said Smith. The researchers use this opportunity to conduct their most intense study of the wolves, making notes of their behavior and the reactions of other animals to this carnivore so recently restored to the Yellowstone ecosystem. For thirty days, from mid-November to mid-December, volunteers and staffers of the wolf project head out into the field, keeping an eye on the animals from dawn until dusk every single day.

In teams of two—one team for each of three packs in the park—the wolf project members fan out across the vast landscape at first light, carrying a spotting scope, data forms, and a radio receiver that allows them to track the collars worn by many of the animals. After setting up headquarters on a hillside where they can watch through the scope, they look to see what the wolves are doing. They want to know who is leading the pack, if the animals come upon any other wildlife, and how often they make a kill. Every interaction is recorded on the data sheets. After studying the wolves for a while, the watchers begin to recognize them by their markings and by their personalities. "No wolf looks like any other," said Smith.

When the wolves make a kill, the watchers hike to where the animals abandon their"leftovers," so that the researchers may collect a sample and determine what the wolves are eating. Observers have seen 55 elk killed by wolves since they began studying the reintroduced species. The remaining carcass doesn't go to waste, however. Bears, coyotes, and other scavengers come to feed on the wolves' leavings.

The intense work isn't over in December. After a brief break for the holidays, the wolf project team members are back. This time, they're conducting helicopter fly-overs aimed at capturing some of the wolves. The youngest animals, which were been born the previous April, are fitted with radio collars, and some of the older wolves get new collars. These devices will make it easier to study the animals throughout the year.

Weekly fly-overs continue during spring, summer, and autumn, when the wolf project team turns its attention to other aspects of the animals' lives. In spring, the staffers and volunteers monitor the dens, closing the areas around them so that park visitors will not disturb the wolves as they give birth and care for their pups. The researchers collect wolf droppings, later examining them to determine what the animals are eating. When a wolf dies, they try to figure out what happened. As the year goes on and the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, the wolf team prepares once again for a marathon wolf-watching session beginning in November.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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