July 21, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

DAY 17

DEAN: Dave and I arrived safely in Resolute and will now head out to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories late this afternoon on the once-a-week flight – if the weather allows! Thanks to the Blog Buddies at the International Wolf Center for allowing us a great way to share our experiences with the Ellesmere wolves in that beautiful landscape.

And my thanks to Dave and Dean for ending each long work day by taking time to send the daily dispatch – mostly at 3:00 in the morning – so that we can all learn from their research and observations. And special thanks to Carissa Winter, Web Specialist for the International Wolf Center, for a superb job of designing and putting up this Blog. Watch for updates and additions! An article about the 2008 Ellesmere Island Arctic Wolf Expedition will appear in the winter 2008 issue of International Wolf magazine. If you are not a member of the Center, you can join online and receive this quarterly publication!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Day 16

DAVE: Our last night watching for wolves to interact with Elmer was uneventful except for the visit by a very nervous arctic fox that Dean can better describe. As we whiled away our last few hours fending off sleep and a light rain and hoping for just one more wolf visit to Elmer, we opined to each other how satisfying and scientifically fruitful this trip has been. We have been able to document two new pieces of interesting wolf information in our short visit: (1) the long daily distances wolves here travel from their den to areas with consistent food sources – daily round trips of over 40 km; and (2) the manner in which wolves examine strange wolves (Elmer) they encounter. Although the wolves made only two visits to Elmer, a total of 9 wolf visits were involved (1 night by one wolf plus 1 night by eight wolves). There appeared to be some strong commonalities in the ways all these wolves inspected Elmer. It will take several concerted examinations of the video tapes before we can be definitive about this behavior, but for now we believe we have some information that no one has known before. All that, and a glorious time, too! Thank you for joining us.

The wolf is superbly equipped for long-distance travel. From a literary standpoint, no one has described this adaptation better than Barry Lopez in his book Of Wolves and Men: “The movement down the trail would seem relentless if it did not appear so effortless. The wolf’s body, from neck to hips, appears to float over the long, almost spindly legs and the flicker of wrists, a bicycling drift (is) reminiscent of the movement of water or of shadows.” Unlike dogs whose elbows turn out, the elbows of wolves turn inward, thus allowing their feet to track in a straight line underneath their lean bodies. The long muzzle pulls in ample air to keep the blood oxygenated and the wolf’s internal cooling system finely tuned. Capable of moving along at a steady pace of 6 to 7 miles an hour depending on the terrain, the wolf can easily travel as many as 45 miles in a 24-hour period – perhaps more. The long, slender legs, huge feet with toes that grip and cling to rocks, and narrow chests allow wolves to plow through snow, climb boulder spills, and to accelerate their pace to achieve astonishing bursts of speed when chasing prey. Technological advances like satellite and GPS tracking devices have given scientists in the lower latitudes insight into precisely where collared wolves travel and how far. But not here, not in the high arctic. Dave and Dean have to rely on research conducted the old-fashioned way: long hours of observation where nothing seems to happen, their eyes intently sweeping the distant expanses of treeless landscape, watching for movement – and waiting.

DEAN: Last night was our final one in Eureka before heading south. One last time to watch for wolves. Dave and I set up Elmer, optimistic that at least some wolves from the previous night would return. However, no such luck. We did see the arctic fox, though, and it was comical how
high-strung and skittish it was. The fox was convinced Elmer was a threat and gave him a wide berth. I got a picture of the fox on one of his retreats. A plane came into Eureka earlier in the evening and was supposed to continue immediately on south to Resolute, but bad weather there forced the crew to stay at the Eureka Weather Station. Although our scheduled plane was expected to arrive and leave with us on board sometime late in the afternoon today (Friday), Dave and I realized we might have to get on the delayed plane instead, the one that stayed overnight here. Sure enough, once morning came and the weather cleared a bit, we were off to Resolute. There was hardly enough time to say goodbye to the weather station crew, but we have many memories to cherish. Thanks, Dave.

July 18, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

DAY 15

DEAN: The recent waiting around for wolves to come to the vicinity of our base camp near the weather station has finally paid off! For a few days now, we have set up a wolf mount, affectionately called “Elmer,” to help us better understand wolf behavior. The mount is particularly suited for conservation/education purposes. Elmer is no ordinary wolf mount in that its legs are removable, and the tail has a wire that allows for different positions. The removable legs are simply to make the mount more portable, and I use an old golf club bag that everything fits into. The mount is very realistic looking, thanks to a great job done by the taxidermist in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Dave and I wanted to set up the mount in advance of wolves coming through the area so that we could observe their response. This is a great opportunity to document aspects of wolf social behavior.

I have heard diverse opinions about what the wolves might do when they encounter “Elmer. “ On two occasions during the past 10 days, we have had wolves approach the mount, and we have noted similarities in their reactions and differences as well. Of course, we need more encounters to note patterns, but the initial sniffing around exhibited by the various wolves has been interesting. Hopefully, the breeding male makes his appearance tonight before we have to leave Eureka. I have video-taped each encounter. For now, I will leave you to speculate on some of the outcomes. Meanwhile, I will get some frame captures from the video for posting.

The wire that makes the tail position on the mount adjustable is an important feature becau
se tail posture and body attitude are visual signals that reveal the rank relationship among pack mates. By being able to interpret these signals, wolves convey and confirm their status with the other members of their family. Thus, there is no need for conflict and recurring reminders about who is in charge. The parents, called the breeding pair by wolf biologists, often carry their tails in an elevated position, one of the ways in which they signal their rank as “heads of the family.” Their offspring of various ages within the pack signal their recognition of the parents’ dominant roles by carrying their tails in a lower position. Older siblings may exhibit dominant body positions or higher tail carriage with their younger brothers and sisters. Submission is signaled by a tucked tail and a lowered body position.

DAVE: Even though we both believe we have located the den, we agree it is too far away from our hilltop vantage point. We would not be able to see the pups from our lookout, and we can’t get any closer than 2 miles because of the mud flats. Thus, our big focus is on using the mount we call Elmer. We waited for the wolves to approach our base camp from mid-afternoon to midnight on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to no avail. Then last night, 30 minutes before packing up and calling it quits, we spied a couple of white backs about half a mile away coming our direction. Then another, and another, and another, and finally – EIGHT wolves! We got great video of them inspecting Elmer. After the wolves left Elmer, we followed them from 12:18 a.m. as they headed west along the fiord. Found them chasing leverets (young arctic hares). It was hard to keep track of 8 wolves and several leverets, so not sure the wolves caught any. They headed 1/8 miles up Station Creek and then west up the hill paralleling the fiord and then down to the fiord. They were not afraid of Dean and me, and several of them grouped around us. We then accompanied the pack, some ahead of us, several behind, as we tried to keep up with the leader. I kept trying to figure out the gender of the leader, which was scratching regularly at scent-posts. Finally, I realized it was the breeding female. She would do a slight raised-leg urination (see photo), which from a distance looked like a squat defecation, and then she would scratch vigorously. No breeding male to mark with her – he must have gone off on his own earlier. This was a rare occasion to watch the pack while led by the female. We think this is the same female we saw earlier, but no way to prove that. A leveret suddenly jumped up, and all 8 wolves took after it. It gave them a terrific run for their money, but in the end it succumbed to one of the wolves. Two others then gathered around the animal with the young hare, and the breeding female ended up with it and ate it. The wolves returned to the place where Elmer had been and several times carefully examined the spot where he had stood. Then off they headed to the east at 2:58 a.m., and we headed to camp for dinner and to crash.

Stiff-legged scratching sometimes follows urination and defecation scent-marking by the breeding pair. This scratching may spread additional scent from the numerous eccrine sweat glands in the footpads. Also, the obvious scratch marks may be visual cues that call attention to the urine or fecal scent marks.


Thursday, July 17, 2008
DEAN: Here are some video frames I took on the first day we decided to conduct some behavioral observations using Elmer. In this sequence, one subordinate wolf (we think is a male) comes in to the area near our base camp where we have set Elmer up. In this encounter, the wolf eventually bites Elmer on the back and pulls him down, then drags him before I intervene. I had to save Elmer’s hide, so to speak!

Note the tucked tail of the wolf as he sniffs the air and
approaches Elmer. It is impossible to know what prompts this wolf’s reaction to Elmer, but it’s tempting to conclude that he is trying to drive the trespasser away. Wolves are territorial, and they vigorously defend their territories against encroachment from interlopers. Perhaps the subordinate wolf thinks Elmer is a stranger that has ventured into his family’s domain. Clearly, he is depending on his nose to identify Elmer as either a pack member or an intruder, but since Elmer is a taxidermist mount, it’s hard to know what wolf-like scent, if any, he has retained!

Here are the video frames from Elmer’s encounters with various individuals of the eight-member wolf pack that came in last night. There appear to be 5 yearlings (based on their size and behavior) which is consistent with the number of pups observed last year after Dave and I left Eureka without seeing any wolves. The ragged-tailed wolf is the breeding female, and she led the rest of the pack in last night. We are headed out for what we hope will be another evening of “ Encounters with Elmer.”

Yearlings are as tall and as long as adults, but like human adolescents, they have not put on the weight, bulk and stature of their parents and older siblings. They sometimes have what observers call a “bad-hair day.” That is, they may have long hair on the tops of their shoulders that drifts in a halo of tangles as they move about or stand in the wind. Like human teenagers, they may act confident one minute and clueless the next!

July 16, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

DAY 14

DAVE: There is not much to report. We had a problem with one of the ATV’s (all terrain vehicle), and that took much time, but it’s fixed. We sat out all evening at our base camp hoping the wolves would come to the area near the weather station but saw none. Weather is cloudy, but not much wind. It’s about 35 degrees, so it’s comfortable, and there are no bugs!

DEAN: I took a photo of Blacktop Ridge with snow on the high elevations and also one of icebergs in the fiord and of some dwarf fireweed.

Visible from the base camp, the brooding bulk of Blacktop Ridge looms in the near distance. The icebergs drifting in the fiord in July are reminders of just how far north the researchers are. But colorful flowers bloom briefly in summer in this otherwise stark landscape. Among them is the dwarf fireweed that covers the ground in places with a brilliant carpet of intense color.

July 15, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

DAY 13

Dean: We got a late start yesterday because of the poor weather. It snowed on and off throughout the day. It's a wet snow, so it's not permanent on the ground but visible on the hills and higher elevation areas. Visibility is down to about a mile, so there was no point trying to watch for wolves across the river, We mapped out the bearings from our observation spot on the river, and the suspected den is 2.5 miles away from that vantage point. However, we decided not to cross the river because we'd likely only get bogged down in the mud flats. The weather station manager told us that one of the station staff saw three polar bears at the mouth of the fiord in the morning. I suspect they were a family group. Apparently all three bears were similar in size, so likely a mother bear and her two-year-old cubs. We're inland about 6 miles, so those bears will likely stay out on the sea ice. We also heard that a wolf was sighted around the airstrip early in the morning. We didn't get out that way until evening. We wanted to conduct some behavioral observations on any incoming wolves to the area near the weather station and our base camp, but saw none last night. We haven't seen the breeding pair for a few days now, so we are hoping that tonight, Tuesday, brings us better luck.

Dean's career as a wildlife biologist includes years of studying polar bears as well as wolves and caribou. The poor visibility is frustrating even though the researchers know that weather is one factor no one can control.

July 14, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Day 12

DAVE: We watched the possible den with a high-powered spotting scope, and both Dean and I saw a white animal arise out of the tundra, disappear for a few minutes several times and then reappear a few times. Then the animal gradually left the area and began heading west. Both of us think it was a wolf, but neither is certain enough that it was not a hare. So we still can't say for sure that this is the den or rendezvous site. We are watching from about 2 miles away, and it was very windy (and cold --summer here is over as of today!), so it was hard to get a really good read through the scope. We may take another look tomorrow. We also set up some possible behavioral tests near our campsite in case a wolf approaches our base area, but none did up until midnight, so we gave up on that, too.

DEAN: Cold and cloudy today. Hopefully, it’s not the end of summer up here just yet. We went down to the end of the fiord to the river to see if we could see wolves again where Dave spotted one heading down a slope yesterday. It was not too bad getting there as we were traveling downwind, but once we were at the river and facing the direction of the suspected den, we could feel the full force of the wind. Both of us had to put on extra layers of clothes. Even my toque (wool hat) came out. We watched for about an hour and a half when both of us saw a white object moving at the suspected den site. Unfortunately we were 2 or more miles away, and even with the spotting scope, it was hard to make out a definitive shape. It was likely a wolf, but we couldn't absolutely rule out an arctic hare. Arctic hares are very white and large, and they are visible from a long way. However, the movement behavior was so unlike a hare and so much more like a wolf that it would be a safe bet that it was a wolf. If a wolf, then the odds of repeated sightings of wolves in the same spot two days in a row hint strongly at a den site. We took bearings with my GPS at two different spots, so we'll plot those on the map and get a better estimate of distance to that site. Our quest for the den may be successful yet. Cold ride back - into the wind all the way!

It may be hard to imagine how it could be difficult to distinguish between a hare and a wolf with a high-powered spotting scope. But as Dean notes, arctic hares are big, and from a distance, they look even larger than they are! They are 22 to 28 inches long, and they weigh between 9 and 12 pounds. Arctic hares are not the same as snowshoe hares or rabbits. They have huge feet, comparatively short, black-tipped ears and, although their fur changes color farther south according to the season, they remain white all year on Ellesmere. Unlike rabbits, whose young are born blind and naked in a burrow, arctic hares are born in a nest in June or July with their eyes open and with a snug fur coat. They eat the bark, roots, shoots and roots of dwarf willows as well as grass, flowers, saxifrage and the little cranberries that carpet the ground in some places in the arctic.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Day 11

DAVE: All at once, our search has taken a new direction! We now have some track evidence that the adults might have been away from the den or rendezvous site. Just when it seemed we'd totally struck out with finding the den, we suddenly developed a ray of hope. A biologist from the Canadian Wildlife Service studying snow geese here told us late on Saturday afternoon (after our fruitless search with the helicopter) that he had seen lots of wolf tracks at the head of the fiord along which we had often tracked the wolves. Thus we turned our attention there, found scads of old and fresh tracks going both ways and saw that the wolves had headed across a mile-wide set of mud flats to the other side of the fiord. Being unable to cross the flats, we scanned the other side with 15X binoculars and spotted a wolf walking down the slope of an eroded ridge that could easily be a den area. The wolf disappeared for half an hour, and we never saw it or another wolf again. But, we can bring a powerful spotting scope to our lookout tomorrow and watch for a longer time. If we see a wolf there again, or 2 or 3 adults (or possibly pups!), we will confirm that as a den or rendezvous site. We have high hopes about this possibility, for the tracks now indicate that the den is somewhere across the fiord. On the way back to camp, we ran into a wolf heading our way and confirmed that it is not one of the 3 we have learned to identify. It seems to be a non-scent-marking male, and we ran some preliminary behavioral tests with it. So all in all, things are looking up.

And so the pendulum swings again! This demonstrates perfectly that what seem at first to be wild-goose chases ending in failure (in this case, wild-wolf chases!) are, instead, opportunities for new strategies. Instant gratification is not a given in fieldwork. In fact, that rarely happens. This job requires tenacity and the determination to learn from what is NOT found as well as from what is. This is one reason that researchers like Dean and Dave keep meticulous and accurate notes about every single observation, no matter how inconsequential it might seem at the time. From that information, the researchers make new plans.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 10

DAVE: Breakthrough of a different kind. We have the confirmation we needed that the wolves' den is in the direction we think. But we got the confirmation in an unusual way. We have been watching during evenings from a high sandy hill to try to spot the wolves leaving on the nightly hunt from their den area. Today at about 4:45 p.m., as we started to head in that direction, we spotted very fresh tracks of 2 wolves coming our way. They had to have been made since 7:00 this a.m. Thus the wolves were either late heading back for the day toward a den to the west or early heading away from a den to the east, but we had no way of knowing which. Because all the other information pointed to the den being to the east, we assumed that the wolves had left their den early, thus thwarting our plan to watch them leave tonight.

However, we backtracked the wolves some 5 miles and then realized that if they had left a den to the east early, they would have passed close enough to a geologists' tent camp to have struck it. We decided to talk to the geologists. As we approached, the young man and woman came striding toward us excitedly. We could tell from a distance that they had either seen the wolves or worse that the wolves had hit their camp.

It was the latter. The wolves had torn one of their tents within the last 2 hours and peed on it, despite a small wire fence to protect their camp. So this was the proof we needed. At this time of day, the wolves would be leaving their den area, thus confirming that the den was in the direction (east) we had concluded it was. We consoled the geologists with the news that they had really helped us, and we checked to make sure they had everything they needed to repair their tent. We also told them how better to “wolfproof” it. And we left elated that we had the proof we had been seeking.

For tomorrow: Our challenge will be how to try to find the den even though it has to be farther away than we wanted to go.

DEAN: After an evening of sitting on a large sand hill cursing the mosquitoes when the wind died down, we felt optimistic that this evening would be the one where things would happen. The wolves had not been to the weather station, where we first saw all three wolves, for two days. We also did not see any tracks on the road leading to the station. Given their regular use of the road and their station visits, odds were good a visit might happen tonight. We headed out after 4 p.m. with the intent of getting to the sand hill lookout in time to see wolves that were expected to leave their den in early evening. Getting a direction from where they were coming from would be key to making progress in finding the den and the pups.

No sooner had we started out on the road than we saw a very fresh wolf track coming towards the airstrip and weather station. We looked back over the tundra to see if we could see a wolf that we missed. No such luck. We advanced just a bit farther down the road and now saw a second wolf track in the sand along with the first. We examined farther ahead to see if a third wolf was present, but it didn't look like it. If three wolves had traveled down the road, there was little point going to the sand hill observation point. However, we decided to continue on as it would also be informative to see if the wolf tracks continued for the entire 10.8 km length of the road. We saw a scratch in the sand at one point along the road, suggesting to us it was a male. We had seen the male do this the other night when the "nursing" female was around. So, we assumed that the pair of wolves traveling the road was the breeding pair. The third wolf, the one we think is perhaps a yearling female, could still be at the den. We did see fresh wolf tracks at intermittent spots along most of the road. There were 2 geologists camping past the end of the road and up Remus creek. We had met them before. If our hypothesis was right about where these wolves were denning, it was likely these wolves would have traveled past the geologists. If the geologists were in, they may have seen them and could confirm how many wolves there were and perhaps give us a direction the wolves came from. If the geologists were away, I joked with Dave that maybe we could look at their tent poles and see scent marks (from the pee).

No sooner did we turn the corner to the tents, when the two geologists ran up to greet us. I figured they had some news to tell us. Sure enough, wolves had come by. The geologists had just returned to camp, perhaps 10 minutes before we arrived, and they saw their trip alarm fence broken and one of their tents had a rip or tear. There was also a pee mark on one tent! One of the geologists assumed the scent mark was no older than 2 hours because it hadn't evaporated yet. The geologists were in good spirits and somewhat amused at it all, too. Their bad luck was our good fortune as we now had a time-based direction of travel which was consistent with a den far out to the east. We indicated that it could have been worse, and it was likely that the wolves would visit again. We suggested they drape flagging tape or other tape as "fladre" over their trip wire fence to help deter the wolves. They agreed and set it up.

Dave and I went up the sand hill lookout area and spent the better part of the evening watching for a wolf to leave the den or, less likely, seeing the two wolves from the road returning to the den. We saw nothing but couldn't help but wonder what we would have seen had we only been here watching about 2 hours sooner. . . .

“Fladre” (flagging tape) is used in some regions with reported success to deter wolves from harassing or attacking fenced-in livestock. The wolves of the high arctic have never been persecuted by humans as wolves have in other regions of the world. Therefore, they exhibit little or no fear of people. Some individual wolves may be a bit wary, but they generally appear to be merely curious about the strange two-legged creatures in their domain. They can trash a campsite with great glee, ripping up sleeping bags and tugging at clothing they find lying about. It’s impossible to know exactly why they do this, but to all appearances, it’s a diversion and a game. Wolf adults play “games” like tug-of-war with the growing pups, and the pups engage in this sport with each other. The contested object might be a piece of old hide or even a large bone. The wolves seem to have a good time with this competition, but clearly it is yet another way that the pups increase their strength and endurance during the first months of rapid growth and development. Hanging on to one end of a piece of hide at age 8 weeks becomes refusing to let go of a struggling prey animal later on in adulthood. The “game” prepares them for survival.

DAY 10 (Continued)

Saturday Night, July 12, 2008

DAVE: Bad news for today. This afternoon, we managed to get the helicopter and searched the area several miles to the east and some to the northeast for 35 minutes but found no wolves. If they were where we searched, we are convinced we would have seen them. So they must be somewhere else, but where that could be is beyond us. So we will now have to concentrate on what we can learn when the wolves come to the vicinity of our campsite near the weather station, something they do almost daily. If an occasion arises where we can follow a wolf back toward the den or rendezvous site, of course, we will try to use that opportunity. But, for the moment, it’s useless to continue our hunt for the place where the pups might be because we are at a loss as to where to look.

This is a bewildering and somewhat disheartening turn of events. But it is possible that even with the low-flying helicopter, the pups may have been invisible from the air. At this age (perhaps 7 weeks as Dave and Dean predict), they are a light beige color, and they blend perfectly with the landscape. If the adults were away from the den or rendezvous site, the pups may have been securely tucked in a hole or under some boulders.

July 11, 2008

Friday, July 11, 2008

Day 9

We didn’t really accomplish a thing today. We sat on a high sandy hill from 5:45 to 10:45 waiting for wolves to show as they made their way from the den toward the place where they have been showing up several nights in a row. We were positioned between the putative den area and their usual route of the last several nights. We saw nothing except a large arctic hare that came hopping by, acting interested in what in the world we were doing on his/her hill.

The fact that we saw no wolves leaving is not evidence contrary to our notion that we have the right area where they are denning. This is because on our way back to camp, we checked all the loose sand and dust where the wolves have been coming to each night and found no fresh tracks. That could mean that tonight they left the den in a different direction from the usual one, and thus we would not have been able to see them. We’ll have to try this spot again for the next couple of nights. At least the weather was quite comfy with high enough wind to keep the mosquitoes away.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Day 8

DAVE: We accomplished 2 things today. 1) We backtracked yesterday’s 3 wolves and found they had basically come from the east and only approached for their last half mile from the northeast – thus NOT contradicting earlier evidence, and 2) checked all the remaining areas between camp and 12 kilometers to the east. Thus, our current hypothesis is that the pups are 12 km to the east, that is, beyond where we last checked to east a few days ago, farther out on the desert. The beauty of this hypothesis is that it is consistent with all our evidence and not contradicted by any except our amazement that they are that far away.

We plan to start testing this notion by sitting on a large hill in the areas 10 km to the east and watching in the evening to see if we see the wolves heading out of the suspected areas. Otherwise, we will also try to get use of a helicopter headquartered her for various other research projects and fly the area. That could take a few more days to arrange.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Day 7

DAVE: Another day of finding where the wolves are not. We headed several miles up Remus Creek to an area where the wolves denned in 1989. It was very tough driving with the ATV’s, plus it was hot, and there were many mosquitoes. We howled in several places and scanned wide valleys and high hills with binoculars again, but no wolves.

Then we headed back toward camp and tried a new spot. We drove the ATV’s as high as possible and then began climbing to the crest of the hill, only to find that each time we crested the hill, a new crest appeared farther up. After 7 such false crests, I called it quits, and we howled from there. The climb down was almost as grueling as the climb up. Then began our lookout in the area around camp where the wolves tend to come in most nights. Sure enough, about 9:00 p.m., Dean radioed me that he had 3 wolves in view. I zoomed over to him, a 5-minute drive, and we began following the wolves. Eventually they headed into a deep valley north of the airstrip where the planes land to bring supplies to the weather station, and out across the wide valley to the northeast. Suddenly they jumped an arctic fox pup, chased it, and it got away. But then we noticed one of the wolves beginning to eat something around the same den area. We believe it had caught a second pup that we had not seen.

The wolves included the breeding female, the breeding male and probably a yearling, and they had come in from the northeast, whereas the female had come in from the east before and had left to the east/northeast. Thus the directions roughly jibed, but not precisely. Nevertheless, we will be searching a quadrant from the northeast to the east tomorrow.

DEAN: We still haven’t found the den, but not for lack of trying. Today we went up Remus Creek into some fairly hummocky terrain. Sure got our innards shaken up on the ATV’s! We howled in a bunch of places but no success. Once evening rolled around, we drove back to the airstrip area. Dave and I split up to watch different areas. We really need to see that nursing female again and get another clue on the direction she travels.

I started watching around 8:30 p.m., and 45 minutes later, I saw something white move on the tundra. It seemed small, and I was expecting it to be an arctic hare. When I viewed it though my binoculars, it clearly was a wolf coming head on. As I reached for the radio to inform Dave, I saw a second wolf appear near the first. I radioed Dave to say that I saw two wolves coming toward me. While I waited for Dave to reply, a third wolf came into view with the other two. When Dave replied, he asked me to confirm that I saw 2 wolves. Somewhat chuckling, I said, “Well, Dave, I now have THREE wolves in sight, and they’re heading in my direction!” Of course, that got Dave all excited, and he said he was coming over to join me. It turned out the wolves were the dominant male (RLU’s galore, and he scratched at the ground) and the lactating female. We suspect the third wolf is that other young wolf, like a female, we saw on the first day.

The three wolves soon left the area together and presumably continued hunting. We saw one wolf run a bit in one direction, and it appeared to catch something. I thought it might be a chick, but I saw no birds flying above the wolf. Just then, Dave and I saw a small animal dash to a small rock outcrop. We suspect it was an arctic fox pup, and that site must be a fox den. Perhaps that wolf killed a fox pup that didn’t make it back to the den in time. The wolf was at that spot for several minutes and looked like he was eating something. Soon after, the three wolves moved west and went out of view.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Day 6

DAVE: Skunked 2! We struck out again today. We backtracked the wolves much farther over the mud flats of the Remus Creek drainage and up various dried creek beds in the sandy desert, a total now of about 10 – 12 miles from where we saw the breeding female. Every half mile or so, we would climb a hill and howl, but we got no replies. Finally, after losing the tracks because of the lack of good tracking ground, we continued in the direction the tracks had been coming from for several more miles, howled several more times and then posted ourselves on hills and watched from 9:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. hoping to see a wolf emerge from some distant spot and begin its nightly hunt. But no such luck. We then began the long drive on our ATV’s back to camp while pondering where our reasoning could have gone wrong.

These negative results made us begin questioning our assumptions, among them (1) the 5 miles we backtracked the breeding female should have led us toward the den because in the evening, usually a wolf would be coming from the den, and (2) the many other old and fresh wolf tracks along the same route also indicated wolves traveling to and from the den. If either of these two assumptions is wrong, that could explain why we could not find the den. The only hard information we have about the den is where we saw the breeding female, as she almost certainly was returning to the den to nurse the pups. This, of course, is another assumption but a very good one because the female had been away from the pups for at least 10 hours.

Conceivably when we first saw her, she was NOT coming directly from the den but perhaps from an old kill or some other attraction, in which case her backtrack could have misled us. So tomorrow we begin searching and howling in the new area where the female disappeared.

This dispatch demonstrates the necessity of strategy when researchers are trying to find “needles in a haystack” – or in this case, wolves in a landscape so huge that one can see for seemingly endless miles in every direction. Although the land is treeless, the terrain is rugged, with gullies and dips and high ridges and valleys. Dean and Dave have learned through years of observation that wolf packs have established patterns and routines when they are raising pups. The adults are tied to the den and/or rendezvous site until the pups are old enough to travel and to hunt with the pack. It is this routine of hunting and returning to bring food to the youngsters that holds the key to finding where the wolves have established their summer “home.”

Monday, July 7, 2008

Day 5

DAVE: Skunked! We found lots more places where the wolves are not, and we pretty well know now where they must be, but that is not good news. They appear to be way at the end of fiord, but how far across there we still don’t know. We checked all the hills above the ancient remains of a Thule village and ruled them out. Also found more evidence that the wolves have been coming from farther away than that area. It all leads across a creek and into the desert. Tomorrow we should be able to track them across the sand, and we can only hope they are not too far away. We’ve also revised the ages of the pups. They should be about 7 weeks old now because Mom was away from them at least 10 hours last night. Based on a publication I did in 1992, that indicates they are about 7 weeks old and getting close to weaning. Anyway, we are still having great fun, and tomorrow should indicate how easy or hard it will be to work with this pack.

Ellesmere Island is very dry. Wildlife tends to congregate in large thermal oases where sufficient water sustains the sparse vegetation that nourishes muskoxen, arctic hares and other animals. Although snow does accumulate during the long, dark arctic winter, it must not come too early in the autumn if healthy numbers of muskoxen and arctic hares are to survive. If the snow comes too early, it will cover the vegetation, and the muskoxen will not have enough to eat to build up the reserves they need to survive the bitter cold and depleted food supply in winter. This is life on the edge.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Day 4

DAVE: Disappointment! We checked the gully where the male disappeared yesterday, hoping it was the den or a rendezvous site, but unfortunately it had only been a temporary resting spot for the male. But we did have a big breakthrough! We saw the real breeding female today and stayed with her from 9:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Glad it’s light all night! We could see at least 6 well-used nipples, indicating she’s still nursing pups and probably 3 – 6 of them. Dean got some good pictures of her and was able to backtrack her about 5 miles in the sand and dust while I stayed with her waiting for her to return toward the den. When she did head out, however, she did some fancy maneuvering and gave me the slip after a mile. I spotted her again with binoculars a couple of miles away and lost her again. One thing interesting is that she did not backtrack the way she had come but rather paralleled that route about 1.5 miles to the north. So the question is: Will the backtrack help us find the den, or would it be better to search where I lost her as she returned? We will first try the backtrack because that is where there are many tracks of many wolf trips.

Dean took a picture of a female wolf with dark, swollen nipples. (See photo) It is obvious she has pups. If the den or rendezvous site is close to the researchers’ base, the pups could be quite young, perhaps 5 weeks old. At that age, they need to nurse about every 5 hours, and the mother would not leave them to travel a great distance. Young as they might be, however, they are active and robust and growing rapidly. They are beginning to eat solid food regurgitated by the breeding pair and by the older siblings that have remained with their natal pack. Trying to figure out where the rendezvous site is located is part of the frustration and part of the fun of field work. Ideally, a rendezvous site is situated where the adults can leave the pups while they hunt. This “wolf pup nursery” provides shelter and protection from predators. It is located near a water source if possible. Sometimes an older brother or sister will remain behind to babysit while the other adults search for food.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Day 3

DAVE: We tracked a wolf we think may be the breeding male tonight. We observed lots of raised leg urinations (RLU’s), and he disappeared into a gully about 2 miles away and stayed there for 30 minutes. We were watching with binoculars from half a mile away. Finally we howled, and he popped up out of the gully. Not sure what he was doing there, but we like to think he was there because it is a den or rendezvous site. Probably not, but could be. So that’s our first order of field work tomorrow evening. This wolf looks a bit like the breeding male of 2006 (see 2006 trip blog) but with a gray streak on his back, so he must be someone else. In any case, that really makes us optimistic that we will find the rendezvous site.

DEAN: Saw a dominant male wolf tonight, several RLU’s. When the wolf left the area where we were, we followed him a bit to the north but lost him in a gully. We didn’t see him leave the gully, so he had to still be there. After about ½ hour Dave and I howled, hoping to bring him out, and sure enough, we did. We didn’t get a reply to our howls. Could be we just didn’t hear them. We were hoping that after this male popped up from the gully, another wolf would, too, but alas, none did. Tomorrow, we’ll check out that spot. I think we’re going to have some fun this week.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Day 2

Things are looking up. Lots of fresh and old tracks every place one would expect if wolves are denning in area. Tonight we followed a wolf we think is a breeding female toward the den but lost her across a creek. But this could be a very good lead. Weather is great - but not the mosquitoes.

The researchers go from disappointment and uncertainty to optimism and renewed expectations! The fresh tracks are evidence that wolves are somewhere in the area, and the sighting of the single wolf, perhaps the mom, could be the first major clue that a pack is raising pups somewhere in this limitless landscape. But, where?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Day I

Arrived safely at the base camp in Eureka. No wolves at the rock den.

This is a discouraging discovery for the researchers, especially since the wolves did not den there in the summer of 2007. It is puzzling. The rock den, a number of miles from the weather station, has been a chosen spot for countless generations of wolves in this area. It’s impossible to know why this favored place has been rejected for two years in a row. One theory is that ice might have still been present in the cave-like opening in the rocks when the female was selecting a place to have the pups. But wolves are elusive animals, and Dave and Dean are accustomed to having to use all their skills to figure out where a pack of wolves might be and where they might have their pups securely situated at a den or summer rendezvous site. None of these wolves has a radio tracking collar, a piece of sophisticated hardware that helps to locate wolves in more southerly latitudes. This is the challenge of field work in a place so remote that it requires three days of travel just to get there from the lower 48 states – that is, if the weather cooperates. Nothing is guaranteed. Persistence, patience and determination are basic requirements, and “technology” in the high arctic consists of binoculars and spotting scopes.

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2008 Ellesmere Island Wolf Research Expedition

The summer of 2008 marks the 23rd year of the Ellesmere Island Arctic Wolf Research Expedition conducted annually by Dr. L. David Mech, senior research scientist with the Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey. “Dave” is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. Each summer, he has been granted a research permit from the territorial government in Canada. He has observed wolves for weeks at a time, traveled with them, watched them hunt and recorded their behavior as they raised their pups in this stark and hauntingly beautiful landscape.

This summer, Dave is accompanied by Dean Cluff, a wildlife biologist with the Department of
Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories, Canada (http://www.nwtwildlife.com). Dean has traveled several times to Ellesmere Island with Dave Mech, including the summer of 2007 when there were no wolves to be found in the vast study area. Sometimes that happens. Wolf numbers fluctuate as prey populations flourish and wane. Some years no pups are produced. Other years, the breeding pair may be parents to 5 or more offspring.

The 2008 Ellesmere Island Arctic Wolf Research Expedition began with the hope that wolves would be raising pups at the rock den discovered years ago by Dave Mech, a beautiful outcropping of huge boulders and rocky rubble on a hillside with a panoramic view of a broad valley laced with meandering streams where muskoxen crop the meager vegetation. For photos and more information about this den site, go to http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/field_notes/field_notes_main.asp. You can click on the Ellesmere 2006 Research Expedition or on the 2001 Expedition. For a photo slide show, go to www.davemech.org. Click on Dave’s Personal Web Site and then on the 2006 trip photos.

After the long trip north to 80 Degrees North Latitude, Dave and Dean arrived at their base near a small weather station at Eureka on Ellesmere. Here, so close to the North Pole, the sun never sets in mid-summer. This is truly the Land of the Midnight Sun. Thus, the researchers must re-set their own inner clocks so they can observe wolves heading out to hunt during the bright evening hours and, if they are fortunate, see them return, perhaps to regurgitate meat to the pups that are still nursing but transitioning to solid food.

Here, in their words from their base camp, are the daily reports from Dave and Dean. Dean will send photos when possible.