July 14, 2008

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.

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