Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Call of wild is wolf pups' past, future

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Surrogate motherhood can apply to wolves, as a Minnesota captive wolf adds three wild-born wolf pups to her family.

Tom Meersman - Star Tribune

When the rate of beeping doubled on his radio, Don Reiter knew there was trouble. It was the "mortality code," which sounds when a wolf with a radio collar hasn't moved for four hours, meaning that it is probably dead. The fish and wildlife director for the Menominee Indian tribe knew the radio frequency belonged to a female wolf who had borne pups a few weeks earlier -- the first time that had happened on the northeastern Wisconsin reservation in 75 years.
Reiter rushed to find the female, confirmed the death and began searching frantically for the den. About 100 yards from her body, in a hollowed-out trunk, one of Reiter's assistants found five pups, hungry and waiting for their mother.

The discovery set off a scramble that has brought the orphan pups to Minnesota for an unusual test: Can wild wolf pups be raised in captivity for as short a time as possible, then be returned successfully to the wild? "This has never been done before that we know of," said Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center near Forest Lake, which is raising the pups. "There's no guidebook for how to do this."

The nonprofit education and research center is trying to maintain a delicate balance, Callahan said, in monitoring the pups without coddling them. That means as little direct human contact as possible, limited to a few minutes once a day to take temperatures and weights. The tribe will decide when to take the pups back, she said, probably in about a month. Timberwolves are a sacred and historic part of tribal culture, Reiter said, and the fate of the pups means a great deal to the Menominee.

Seeking a natural solution

After finding the dead mother and her pups, Reiter rushed the pups to the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay. They were still too young to eat solid food and were likely to die without milk. So they were fed with bottles and, for a few days, it seemed that they were destined to be raised in captivity. But then a flurry of e-mails and phone calls raised the possibility of placing them with a surrogate mother for a period of time and then returning them to their father in the wild.

The Minnesota center had a surrogate: Mariah, a 7-year-old female who had produced a litter of three males on April 22 and would be nursing them for several more weeks. For the plan to succeed, said Adrian Wydeven, wolf expert for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the time with the surrogate mother will have to be as brief as possible.

One of the orphan pups died en route to Green Bay; another was very sick. Handling and feeding the pups might already be causing them to lose their fear of people, rescuers feared. Reiter agreed to give the plan a try. A Wisconsin DNR official drove the pups from Wisconsin to Minnesota two weeks ago.

"I just put them all together that same afternoon," said Callahan, and Mariah suddenly had seven pups to care for instead of three. The ailing one died May 17, Callahan said, but the other pups have gained weight and appear healthy.

On a recent afternoon, the pups were busy in their new environment. A couple of them nursed briefly, while another nuzzled against a female yearling in the pack. Others jumped on one another or took off on their own, tripping across the ground with all the gumption of toddlers in the early stages of walking. As both mother and surrogate mother, Mariah was simultaneously watching them and a photographer just inside the compound. When a pup would stray too far from her, she'd quickly gather it up in her mouth and bring it back to a safer place. Callahan said the entire pack -- four other adults and two yearlings -- has accepted pups as its own.

Looking to the future

How long the wild pups stay with their adopted pack will be tricky to decide, Wydeven said. The pups will need to have grown enough to survive in the wild without nursing, and they'll need not to be rejected by the male wolf that sired them. Reiter said the tribe is baiting the den with deer carcasses to keep the male from abandoning the area. If the pups survive the next few weeks, he said, they will be returned to the den and put in a small enclosure for a few days.

"We'll be relying mostly on the father to raise these pups," Wydeven said. If the father visits and shows signs of accepting them, he said, the pups will be released. If the father rejects the pups, they'll probably need to be raised in captivity for their own protection. Menominee tribal officials will make that decision, if necessary, at the appropriate time. Callahan said the Wildlife Science Center would be interested in taking the pups again if the tribe requests it.

"The pups are what we're worrying about right now," said Reiter, the tribe's wildlife director. "This is very important to us."

  • Star Tribune

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