Wisconsin’s rising wolf population has sparked controversy over the years. It’s also sparked a one-of-a-kind program for keeping tabs on those wolves…a volunteer carnivore tracking program run by the DNR.
These citizen trackers are quietly helping create one of the best tracking datasets on wolves in the world.
"So the idea is, pattern on the ground, visualization in the mind, any questions on that?"
It’s a cold and windy December weekend and a group of about twenty students are scrutinizing a series of dog tracks in deep snow. Pro tracking guide Jim Halfpenny is teaching them to recognize how fast an animal is moving…based on the distance between footprints.
“From the tracks you want to be able to see in your mind, how the animal’s moving," Halfpenny explains. "And that may give you clues then to what the behavior is, to why it’s using a particular behavior.”
The grizzled Halfpenny travels to Wisconsin every winter to help train volunteer trackers for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Volunteers learn how to recognize different kinds of prints, how to check for freshness - and how not to confuse dog tracks with wolf.
“The natural history detective gathers all the clues," he says. "You have to avoid jumping to a conclusion before you’ve gathered all the clues."
After two days of training, volunteers have to pass a test to show they know what they’re doing. Then they’re assigned a survey block. Each winter they’ll brave the cold and the back roads of those blocks, looking for signs of wolves and other carnivores.
“Actually it wasn’t difficult, it was fun – like I said they were gone here in 1960.”
Norm Paulton started volunteer tracking 17 years ago, because of a fascination with wolves. He says he’s watched the population rebound from near-extinction.
“And to see them come back and multiply and expand," Paulton said. "Every year it became more fun, because you would see more tracks, and know there were more and more wolves coming back.”
They started coming back in the 1970s. Soon there were so many wolves, DNR staff couldn’t keep track of them. And so the volunteer tracking program was born – a way to involve citizens and get better data. Jim Halfpenny says now the program has grown to cover two thirds of the state.
“Wisconsin has the largest geographic range of a tracking study in the world. There’s no other place comparable – with so many people spread out so far, doing a quality job and pulling all that data together for a report each year. "
That report is used to help determine one of the state’s more controversial policies – the wolf hunt. Wolves did so well in Wisconsin they were taken off the state’s endangered species list in 2004. Last winter Wisconsin held its first ever wolf hunt and killed over a hundred wolves. This season, hunters and trappers took twice that many. Controversy has raged over whether Wisconsin’s wolf population can sustain the impact. In fact, when the wolf hunt began, many of those volunteer trackers actually resigned their posts. But DNR Carnivore Specialist Dave MacFarland says wolves’ relatively small numbers…make the count even more important.
“Population abundance is one of those key parameters for effective management," MacFarland explained. "If we’re going to manage a population, knowing how many there are is one of those key pieces of information. And that’s especially true when you’re dealing with small populations.”
Before this year wolf numbers in Wisconsin sat at just above 800. The DNR also uses radio collars to track some of the wolves, but that’s expensive.
“Having a hundred people out every winter tracking wolves is a level of effort that just simply couldn’t be replicated by the department. We just simply don’t have the resources to do it. So this volunteer effort allows us to have a more complete count of our wolf population than would be possible without it.”
Neighboring Michigan only counts wolves every few years, and they only sample part of the state. Wisconsin’s army of trackers are monitoring everywhere wolves are likely to show up. Jim Halfpenny says the result is a kind of accuracy that’s about more than numbers.
"So it’s become in many ways a more sophisticated level," Halfpenny said. "No longer can you say I just saw a bobcat track. Now you got to document where, and what was it doing, and keep track of that animal over time. So the level of sophistication of the data that we’re gathering has increased dramatically over the last quarter century.”
And they’re doing it all…for practically free.