Sunday, September 14, 2008

Idaho Wolf Field Trip

This weekend Karyn and I delayed our trip to help band hawks at the Idaho Bird Observatory and instead joined Defenders of Wildlife on a photography and wolf watching field trip.  We hope to make it to the bird observatory next weekend.

The Defenders event began with a photography workshop on Thursday night with local wildlife photographer Larry Thorngren.  The photography workshop was oriented more as a best practices session in wildlife photography than as a nuts and bolts photography class. Larry brought his portfolio along for our enjoyment as well.

Saturday was the field trip into the mountains to visit a wolf rendezvous site in the hopes of seeing wolves. A rendezvous site is a location that all of the wolves in a given pack know about and return to. This time of year it is where the pups (born in April) hang out. Later in the year, they may move to a different rendezvous site. For the wolf watching we were joined by an expert wolf biologist who's boss probably didn't want him talking to us.  Wolves are very, very political in this state.

Karyn decided we should take our camper van and stay in the area overnight.  The middle of the day is the least likely time to see wolves, so it warranted staying through the evening and morning to get more action. 

The wolf biologist was very patient educating the group on many aspects of wolves, the Idaho wolf reintroduction, and the current politics. He brought a few wolf pelts, a radio collar, tracking equipment, and demonstrated the trap that he uses to catch and collar wolves. In an interesting move he let the trap close on his hand to demonstrate that it was a reasonable safe way to capture wolves. The important part is to monitor your trap lines as soon as you can.

By the official end of the field trip 3pm, we had only seen one wolf wandering through some far trees. Some of the group had to leave to go back home.  Some stayed late into the evening for better viewing. The photographer had brought his camper and planned to stay with us.  Another woman, who lives just down the street from us, was so excited that she decided to sleep in her car over night. We pitched in some extra gear to make her stay more enjoyable.

On Saturday evening after all but 7 of us had left, 4 wolf pups started playing in the field before us. Two blacks and two grays.  They were too far away for any good photos, but I took some shots anyway. They appeared to be hunting ground squirrels. One adult wandered out of the woods to keep an eye on them.

Click to view full album: DefendersWolfTrip

Later a second adult wolf came out of the trees. All four pups ran over and solicited for food. They do this by taking a submissive posture and licking the mouth of the adult. If the adult had food he/she would have regurgitated it for them. All of the adults in a pack will do this.  It is not limited to the parents of the pups. Generally wolves returning from a hunt will feed the pups and any babysitter wolves who stayed behind. On this occasion it did not appear that there was any food available.

We watched until there was not enough light left to see. It was a beautiful evening, calm with the full moon raising over the meadow.  About 2am in the morning we awoke to a full pack howl.  Maybe they had just returned from a hunt, maybe they were just leaving on one, or maybe they were just howling.

Up before light in the morning, the meadow was covered in fog. We made our way to a slight rise to overlook the area.  Waves of fog were rolling through the meadow.  It was amazing to watch the wave propagate across the meadow and then move back much like ocean waves on the beach.  Once the sun hit the meadow it all lifted.  Unfortunately, there were no wolves to be seen.

On the home a few miles from the meadow we found some very fresh wolf tracks. They were following some very fresh elk tracks!

The various conservation groups have been petitioning the Idaho Fish and Game to establish wildlife viewing areas where wolf hunting would be restricted. Areas available to photographers to take photos or people who have never seen a wolf to watch in wonder as we were doing. Half of our group had never before seen a wild wolf. This is an amazing educational resource that our state possesses. If only our government could realize it. Unfortunately they are still focused solely on the eradication of wolves in Idaho.

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