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Timber wolves still live free among us in Minnesota

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I enjoy telling the following story. A good friend of mine, who is an avid and accomplished outdoorsman, once had a chance encounter with three northern Minnesota wolves on a cold and starlit December night several years ago. It was an unforgettable, thrilling experience for him.

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Like the wolves, my friend was hunting. He was hunting coyotes. And like the wolves, he was careful in his stealth, using, for concealment, the long shadows of jack pines cast by the waning light of late afternoon, as well as the cover of dense understory shrubs. He listened to the sounds of the woods, smelled the scent of snow, and felt the northwest breeze upon his face. The wolves, not far off, were closing in, but neither he nor they knew of each other. Yet.

He sat on the ground while leaning against a tree, his back held comfortably, knees up, from where a comfortable vigil would commence. Rifle at ready, he began imitating the distress cry of a wounded hare by aid of an artificial call. Perhaps the wolf's crafty cousin, the coyote, would make a rare mistake and reveal himself.

The alarm call of a screaming hare pierced the winter air. The three wolves, which were trotting in single file on a nearby ridgeline along the outer edge of their territory, stopped immediately in their tracks. Three pairs of bale-yellow eyes set below three pairs of erect and pointed ears, all looked and listened intensely into the direction from where the sound came from -- their faces alert, black noses wet, all musculature poised.

Another long and mournful scream penetrated the shadows, causing wolf number three to flinch, wolf number two stood still, but the lead wolf broke into a dead run straight for the sound. His packmates instinctively followed and were soon both running abreast of their leader, leaping over fallen forest debris, dodging trees, and crashing though brush and snowdrifts. The three wolves knew exactly where they were going; they knew exactly where the hare was crying.

The artificial hare-call nearly made it to his lips for another blow, but it stopped short of the mark when the sound of running animals reached his ears. With no apparent communication, though something surely was conveyed, the two subordinate wolves veered slightly left while the lead wolf remained on course straight for the hare's lair.

Each wolf knew precisely what to do. The lead wolf would confront, while the two subordinates would circle downwind to either test the breeze or attack from the rear. Yet, the question becomes, were these wolves responding to a dinner bell? Or were they about to kill the predator -- perhaps another wolf or coyote -- that so dared to venture into their territory to hunt?

My friend sat stunned at the sight of the large lead wolf when it broke clear of the shadows a mere 15 yards distant. The wolf came to an abrupt stop and began surveying the area before it, holding its head below it shoulders, its front legs splayed slightly, and its tail held high. Slowly, the wolf moved its head in a deliberate sweeping motion from one side to the next while searching the immediate surroundings.

In the following tense moment, my friend's heart raced as he sat transfixed in the experience while the wolf, still there, still searching, did not detect him sitting motionless in camouflaged clothing. Seconds later, however, the other two wolves discovered their error when, as their course crossed the crucial downwind intersect of where my friend sat vigil, winded him at last. And as quickly as the three wolves' arrival had been, their departure was as instant -- leaving my friend behind, sitting still, listening at their haste, dry mouth, pulsing veins, labored breath.

The wolf -- the gray wolf, the eastern timber wolf, Canis lupus -- lives in Minnesota. In fact, wolves once roamed all over the world. In North America, the wolf is only plentiful in Canada and Alaska. Still, a healthy and thriving population lives and hunts in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Gray wolves can also be found in Wyoming, including Yellowstone National Park, and in Montana and Idaho as well.

Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, ranges in Mexico; and now, because of a reintroduction program by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), ranges in parts of New Mexico and Arizona. In 1998, 11 captive-reared Mexican wolves were released in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.

Another gray wolf subspecies, the red wolf, ranges in eastern North Carolina through another of the USFWS' wolf recovery programs. About 100 red wolves roam there. And in 1995, sixty-six gray wolves were captured in British Columbia and Alberta and released into Yellowstone National Park.

As many of you know by now, federal protection as a result of the 1973 Endangered Species Act was removed for wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. This population of wolves is referred to as the Great Lakes population. From an estimated population of around 750 wolves inhabiting northern Minnesota during the 1950s, to about 3,000 wolves today, Minnesota's wolf population has certainly recovered. Management of the Great Lakes wolf population is now in the hands of each of the three states' natural resource departments.

Indeed, here in Minnesota lives the wolf; living as they have for thousands of years ... wild and free ... their howls, their tracks in the snow, their presence ... still among us, despite us, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at bklemek@yahoo.com)

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