Monday, February 25, 2008

At the wolf's door

By David Horst

Twenty-two people ride a darkened school bus down back country roads in search of what all of their childhood fairy tales warned them against. 

Up front is Cindy Mueller, a naturalist at High Cliff State Park and various other area nature centers. The evening's activity is a typical fall Saturday night for Mueller. She's a wolf howler.

Normally a more solitary activity, Mueller has agreed to take a group from the Northeastern Wisconsin Audubon Society to her assigned howling grounds. She had to clear it with the top biologists in the state wolf recovery effort.

We have agreed to a series of strict rules, including wearing no fragrance, exiting the bus in total silence, no coughing or throat clearing, and should you be inclined otherwise, no urinating outside of the bus.

We also agreed not to disclose where we were, so it must suffice to say we were within a three-hour drive of the Fox Cities.

The plan is to make several stops, where we are to climb down from the bus by the light of the moon and stand silently as Mueller lets loose with her well-practiced wolf howls. At an orientation at Fallen Timbers Environmental Center near Black Creek, she offered no guarantee that we would hear wolves, and all but assured we would not see them.

On one recent trip, Mueller's howls were returned from only 40 feet away. She heard wolf claws scraping on the pavement as the males crossed the road on their way to rejoin the pack.
"This is not recreational," Mueller said of our outing. "We do this for a reason. We do this for a survey."

At our first stop, we shuffle down the bus stairs, mentally cursing the crunch of the gravel under our feet. Mueller cups her hands around her mouth, tilts her head back and belts out a mournful, slowly rising howl. She repeats it a couple of times and then ends with a higher yipping sound.

It is distant, but we can barely make out a response. Already it is more than the least we were led to expect.

Bounty hunting exterminated wolves from Wisconsin by 1960. The wolf was declared a federal endangered species in 1974, a label likely to be downgraded soon to threatened. With a successful recovery effort in northern Minnesota, individuals began migrating into Wisconsin. There are now thought to be 50 packs in Wisconsin, about 400 wolves in all. Wolves have been hit by cars near Kaukauna and Hollandtown.

The mate of a female killed on State 96 in Grand Chute is thought to have stayed around the Bubolz Nature Preserve through much of last summer. Five packs are known to live in the area we are traveling. On the second stop, Mueller's howls are met by dead silence. Our best chances, she says, are stops three and four.

The bus rolls to a stop with as little hiss from the air brakes as Howie the driver can manage. We file out silently and Mueller repeats her mournful call.

The response comes nearly immediately. Multiple wolf voices fill the night air. The disembodied adult howls echo from the darkness. The distinctly different yapping of the pups follows. Both, Mueller later estimates, come from half a mile in front of us.

Then comes a response from behind us, two voices, closer and on the opposite side of the road. Mueller later explained we probably heard the alpha, the pack leader, and another male out hunting.

The next call is a single voice, again from in front of us. It puts an end instantly to the chattering of the pups and returns the night to vast silence. The alpha female has sent a signal to her mate that she's uncomfortable with this intruder and he had better get back to the pack.

We contain ourselves until we're back on the bus and the door swings shut before we let out low hoots and pronouncements of "Cool!" It is after midnight. Four more stops would fail to raise a response, but we had already been granted a memorable performance. We had heard at least seven voices from a pack thought to consist of seven to nine wolves.

We gather around at the last stop, expert birders, outdoor neophytes, children, parents and an 83-year-old former forester, and join in a group howl, filling the night with our own voices in tribute to our fellow predator who has come home.

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