Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Orphaned Wolf Pups Returning To Wild

(AP) Forest Lake, Minn. Three orphaned wolf pups headed on a road trip across Wisconsin on Monday. Tucked in a crate in the back of a van, the scruffy, motherless little guys traveled to reunite with their dad, a wild gray wolf roaming the Menomonee Indian reservation near Green Bay, Wis.

The pups are part of a high-stakes biology experiment that scientists in Minnesota and across the border are crossing their fingers over. The puppies have been raised since early May at the Wildlife Science Center outside Forest Lake by a captive wolf serving as a surrogate mother. The pups are now almost 3 months old and weaned.

They were taken back to their birthplace with the hope that the biological father will take over the parenting duties. "What we're doing here -- this exact thing -- has never been done before," said Peggy Callahan, a wolf biologist and the center's executive director.

Brenda Nordin, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife technician, discovered the still-lactating mother dead after the animal's radio-tracking collar emitted a mortality signal. She and Menomonee biologist Don Reiter immediately launched a frantic search, eventually hearing mewing and finding five pups nearby in a den carved out of a hollow pine tree trunk.

"It truly is just plain luck that we found them," she said. The puppies were the first born on tribal land in 75 years and hold a deep significance to the people who live there.

The Menomonee origin story depicts five clans through which all life and culture flowed. One clan was the wolves, the tribe's hunters. Wolves had been absent from the area for years, although seven were released on the reservation in 2002. Only one from that group is still alive, and she no longer lives there.

"People here are thrilled about the puppies and having wolves re-established -- especially because there hadn't been much luck in the past," Nordin said. Two in the litter did not make it. One died in Nordin's arms on the way to the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay. Another succumbed after arriving at the Minnesota center two days later.

Callahan has managed the puppies' care since the reservation biologists and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources asked for help May 8. One of the center's wolf packs had a female who gave birth to three male puppies in early April, so Callahan devised a scheme to add the three additional males to her litter. "We pulled her puppies out of the den, de-wormed all six of them and microchipped them all. We then passed them around and got their smells good and mixed up," she said.

The mother, Mariah, hung around outside the concrete den in the enclosure and eventually crawled back inside, laid down and took care of her babies and the foster pups.

"It's been essentially seamless since then," Callahan said. She and the center staff tried to avoid handling the pups, to prepare them for today's release. There was no holding, petting or bottle-feeding. To have any chance of surviving in the wild, experts agree that wolves must be afraid of humans and pick up on pack behavior.

The center limited face-to-face encounters with the Menomonee pups to every three weeks for vaccinations, and staff did their best to make the experience resonate as unpleasant for the wolves. "We didn't want them to like us," Callahan said on a sunny June afternoon as she watched two pups lounge outside their concrete den as the adults kept a watchful eye. "So far, they've done what they were supposed to. It's like they all got the memo on wolf behavior."

The pups, at about 20 pounds, are all legs, with huge paws and gangly limbs. Just small patches of puppy fuzz remain on their coats.

Forty-eight wolves live at the center, an educational facility and refuge about 35 miles north of St. Paul. Some were born in captivity; others were removed from the wild or orphaned. In addition to gray wolves, the center keeps endangered red wolves and Mexican gray wolves and is part of the national captive-breeding program for the rare species.

It was through Callahan's work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's red wolf recovery program that she learned of mixing captive pups with wild wolf packs. Red wolf biologist Chris Lucash has placed about 20 captive-born red wolf pups with wild packs since 2000 in an effort to diversify bloodlines and boost the wild population. He has never released pups to fathers, however -- only to nursing mothers. And his team tries to release pups before their eyes have opened, at less than 3 weeks of age.

From his North Carolina post, Lucash has heard about the local effort and offered advice. "I'd say the best bet would be to get the pups into a new (wild) wolf den as soon as possible," he said. "But I understand there were no nearby opportunities to have done that."

The risks of releasing the pups are very real -- and serious. There is the possibility that the male will not come back. Or, he could reject the pups. The male has been seen on forest cameras with a new female. She could attack the pups as well.

"We hope that will not happen," Callahan said. "The father is hard-wired to parent those pups. The other wolf may have maternal instincts kick in as well."

But there's no guarantee the experiment will work, she said. To monitor the pups' fate, a Forest Lake veterinarian implanted tracking devices, the size and weight of a mouse, in the pups' bellies more than a week ago. They are too small to be radio-collared.

Maneuvering the pups out of the enclosure for the trip to the vet was an adventure in itself. "When we walk in with capture instruments, it can get Western real quick," Callahan told the onlookers who gathered June 30 to watch.

She was right. Followed by six staff members, Callahan entered the holding area, armed only with a long pole and long, heavy gloves. The pups peeked at the intruders from the den and scrambled, along with the adult wolves, to the far corner of the enclosure.

The adults guarded the babies as the humans advanced on them, inch by inch, with poles in front of them. With the alpha male perched in front, clearly on guard, Callahan crept in and snatched out the three puppies, one by one. Terrified, they urinated and defecated and bit her sturdy gloves. "I'm actually glad they did that," Peggy said with a grin after. "It showed they are terrified of humans, which is what we need them to be."

Reiter and Nordin made the trip from northeastern Wisconsin to watch the pups' implantation surgery and capture. Reiter has been baiting the den to keep the wolves from leaving the vicinity. The tribe also has built a pen they will keep the pups in for a week or so. If the father is spotted on cameras nearby, the pups will be released.

"What we are hoping is that the pups will howl and that will drive the father over to get them," Nordin said. If the father doesn't stay with them and they are not killed, they will either be cared for as captive wolves or another release attempt will be planned.

"That would be the last resort, releasing them again this fall," Nordin said.


    Post a Comment

    << Home