I’ve always looking at animal tracks and reading the stories they tell. A fresh snowfall can reveal secrets about those who share the woods and trails with me. It’s a glimpse into wild lives. So when I learned that Wisconsin needs volunteers for winter wolf tracking, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more. Last December I drove up to Babcock, WI for a day-long carnivore tracking class to learn about the wolves and the tracking program.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) runs the largest scale carnivore tracking program in North America. By the 1980s wolves were almost extirpated from Wisconsin. When hunting stopped in 1995, the wolves naturally began to repopulate from a remnant population in northern Minnesota. They’d been on a slow, steady climb from 2002 through 2014 when there was a slight dip in numbers. In 2015 they rebounded and have been steady around 860 wolves since. This data is a result of the winter tracking program.
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Wild Grey Wolf in Alaska
During the class we learned how to identify animal tracks both by gait (pattern) and print characteristics. The best tracking conditions are about 48 hours after 1/2-3″ of fresh snowfall. This gives the animals time to move through the area and this depth of snow allows for the best print formation.  Mustelids (weasels) are primarily characterized by their gate, they all lope. From there, discerning which weasel (fisher, badger or marten) comes down to the size of the print. Otters, who are also part of the mustelid family, will almost always have slides in their tracks.  They lope and then slllliiiiddde, lope and slllliiiiddde.  (Now I’m ready to find that wolverine for Rob!). Wisconsin has many bobcats, an occasional lynx and a rare mountain lion. Cats’ preferred gait is a walk. Their footprints are asymmetrical and their foot pad has three lobes, which differentiates them from canids. Rabbits and squirrels bound. Domestic dogs gallop – they have no need to conserve energy, in fact they are usually out expending as much energy as they can!  The wild canids (wolves, coyotes and foxes) trot, as it is the most energy efficient way for them to move.
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Wolf Prints in Alaska
It’s easy to tell a squirrel track or a fisher track from a wolf track. But what about a coyote or big dog versus a wolf?  That’s where the patterns, measurements and gait analysis come in. Wild canids direct register. That means that their back foot lands in exactly the same spot where front foot was. They do this so precisely that you cannot tell that there are two prints on top of one another. This differs from domestic dogs who place their back feet mostly in their front foot print. However, their hips tend to be wider than their chests, so their back feet land a little bit outside their front feet and you can see that there are two prints.

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Dog Print – The hind foot (gray) is not exactly in the same place as the front foot was (blue).

Since coyotes and dogs overlap in size, this can be a distinguishing characteristic between the two. Interestingly, not only do wolves direct register in their own prints, but they also direct register in the prints of the wolf in front of them. They tend to track single file in open land, all placing their feet directly in the prints of the wolves in front of them. Again, this is about the efficiency of movement. So if you’re lucky enough to find wolf tracks, you’ll have to follow them to the woods where they will split up as they navigate through the trees. Only then will you know if it was a lone wolf or a pack traveling together. The other telling sign that you’ve found a pack vs. a lone wolf or transient group is the raised-leg urination (“RLU”, science loves acronyms!). Only breeding pairs defending a territory will do this. Other wolves, both male and female, squat to urinate. Sometimes there are too many shuffles of foot prints for the novice to be able to say that there were only three feet on the ground when this animal stopped to pee. But the RLU will be high up on a snow bank or other raised structure that will clearly differentiate it from a squat to urinate.

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Wild Grey Wolf in Yellowstone National Park
The preliminary reports from the 2016 winter tracking are out. Statewide volunteers recorded 222 packs and 28 loners totaling 866 individuals. This map shows all of the survey blocks, each block has 2-4 volunteers assigned to it.  The wolves populate the northern half of state because of the geography. They are where the forests are and not where the farmland is.
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Survey blocks
There were about 45 people in my Saturday class, primarily college students pursuing advanced degrees in ecology/biology or DNR employees. The rest were mostly retired folk who suddenly found themselves with the time to pursue something like this. In addition to the Wisconsin DNR, there are several groups involved with Wisconsin wolf tracking and wolf advocacy.  The Timber Wolf Information Network (TWIN) focuses on educational outreach and teaches some of these classes. The Timber Wolf Alliance’s mission is to use educational outreach and science-based information to promote an ecologically-functional wolf population in suitable areas of the Upper Midwest. Ultimately I decided that driving 2-3 hours in the snow to spend 8 hours driving back-roads looking at tracks was not realistic for me.  Not until we get a cabin in Wisconsin anyway!
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Wisconsin