Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Winter Weather, Flying to Find Wolves

January 24, 2012
Approaching Isle Royale in winter snow and fog. 
John VucetichApproaching Isle Royale in winter snow and fog.
 
John Vucetich, a wildlife ecologist from Michigan Technological University, leads the wolf-moose Winter Study at Isle Royale National Park.

Friday, Jan. 20

“Dispatch, Beaver 1, departing Shagawa Lake, eastbound for Washington Harbor, Isle Royale, two aboard, four hours fuel,” said Pat Lowe, a United States Forest Service pilot. We were supposed to fly to Isle Royale on Jan. 17, but for three days, low clouds, snow and then high winds kept us waiting impatiently on the shore in Ely, Minn. It was clear, calm and cold (minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit) this morning as Pat and I lifted off from Shagawa. Rolf Peterson, a co-researcher, and Don Glazer, our Winter Study pilot, were 30 minutes ahead in the Flagship, our tiny research plane. In an hour we landed on Lake Superior ice.

The island was loosely veiled by low gray clouds — a collaboration of the west wind and moist lake air. Waves lapped on ice-covered rocks that separate Lake Superior from the forest. That forest has insights to share, if we pay attention.


The Forest Service plane dropped our gear on the ice and took off. It’s been six months since I was last here, and it is good to be back. It is comfortable and familiar — the feeling of being alive that only minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit can bring, the feeling of openness that comes from standing on several square miles of frozen ice, and the feeling of content from being among so many spruce and cedar trees. Wilderness is not just part of the world in which we live — it is a part of us.

There is a great deal to do. Knock holes in the ice for water. Secure the Flagship to the ice. Bring a snowmobile and several generators to life. Fire up the communications systems. Make sure the refueling system is working. Start a fire in the cabin. Haul gear from the harbor up to the cabin. The chores will keep us busy all night and into the morning. We can’t begin to make observations until we’ve prepared at least some of the essential gear.
Unloading supplies on the ice of Washington Harbor at Isle Royale. 
John VucetichUnloading supplies on the ice of Washington Harbor at Isle Royale.
 
Saturday, Jan. 21

We worked diligently because the weather was deteriorating, and we wanted to get a flight in before the snow clouds we could see building began to unload their contents. By noon we were ready to fly.
Where do you begin when you don’t know what you may find, when you know you won’t have much time and when you need to keep an eye on the weather? We began with the south shore, where wolves spend a great deal of time looking for moose. In the flat light filtering through thick clouds, we strained to spot wolf tracks. Finally we saw the tracks of a lone wolf at Long Point. Several miles to the northeast, they hooked up with tracks of what seemed to be three wolves that had spent the night on a rocky crag near Atwood beach. They didn’t look particularly fresh, so we left seeking better prospects. At Senter point we found more tracks, most likely from the same group of wolves.

We flew northeast, listening through headsets for telemetry signals from the radio-collared wolves and staring out the cockpit window for wolf tracks that might cut across any creek, drainage or inland lake. An hour passed without another clue. Plenty of time to wonder: Are three wolves all that remain here in what had been Middle Pack (MP) territory? If they are MP wolves, none of them is collared. It could take days to find them.

Then comes a beep, and another and another. Within a few minutes we were circling over the alpha male of Chippewa Harbor Pack (CHP). He is traveling southwest through a swamp near Lane Cove with four other wolves.

Wolves of Chippewa Harbor Pack following their alpha male. 
John VucetichWolves of Chippewa Harbor Pack following their alpha male.
 
Last year CHP had nine wolves. One of them, Romeo, was not among them today. He’d tried to disperse from his natal pack during the winter of 2010, but returned home without success and spend the winter of 2011 with CHP. Had he now taken control of territory that once belonged to Middle Pack? Or was he just temporarily away from CHP? Even though Romeo wears a radio collar, we were unable to find him before having to land as falling snow began to blanket the forests.

Sunday, Jan. 23

Big, wet, heavy snowflakes let us sleep in. We won’t be able to fly again until the snow clears.

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