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DailyTidings.com
  • Catch them if you can

    Idaho biologists find, monitor wolf pups
  • COUER D'ALENE, Idaho — The wolf pup had downy fur and a chubby little belly. But as it bolted from the den, it already showed signs of an adult wolf's fleetness. Lacy Robinson was close behind, but not quick enough. After a scramble through the brush, the pup disappeared into the dense forest of the North Fork of the Co...
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  • COUER D'ALENE, Idaho — The wolf pup had downy fur and a chubby little belly. But as it bolted from the den, it already showed signs of an adult wolf's fleetness. Lacy Robinson was close behind, but not quick enough. After a scramble through the brush, the pup disappeared into the dense forest of the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River drainage. Robinson returned to the den, where seven wolf pups remained to be outfitted with tiny radio collars.
    "Maybe if it was an equal footrace," she said with a rueful sigh, noting that the wolf pup had the advantage of ducking under fallen logs.
    Chasing pups is part of the job for Robinson, one of the lead biologists on wolf pup studies for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
    This spring, department biologists have collared 27 wolf pups from seven packs around the state, using methods Robinson developed. The work is part of efforts to track wolf behavior and survival rates during their first year of life.
    It's cutting-edge research, said Jim Hayden, the department's biologist for wolves, bears and lions. Knowing how many young animals survive their first winter helps biologists monitor whether wildlife populations are trending up or down. Yet aside from a handful of studies in Canada and Minnesota, little research has been conducted on pup survival.
    "It's one of the more poorly understood aspects of wolf biology," said Dan Stark, a large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources not involved in the Idaho research.
    Reliable data on pup survival is particularly important in Idaho, where pups born in April are legal to hunt when wolf season opens at the end of August, said Suzanne Stone, Defenders of Wildlife's Northern Rockies representative.
    "Pup survival is a great indicator of how healthy the overall population is," Stone said. "This should help inform wolf managers ... when it comes to setting hunting seasons and conservation goals."
    'They're not happy'
    Getting that information has Robinson crawling into wolf dens, designing lightweight radio collars and imitating a pup's whine. It's an ideal job for the 36-year-old biologist, whose resume lists a decade of professional field research.
    "I get excited about all the data we will get from those collars," she said.
    On a recent morning, Robinson led two other biologists to the suspected den site of the Bumblebee pack in the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River drainage. Last summer, she found the empty den after a wolf pup was spotted in the area. This year, the biologists were returning in hopes of finding blue-eyed pups to collar.
    Anticipation built as the crew hiked into a narrow canyon. Fresh scat indicated the den was probably still in use, and a shaded patch of snow held a tiny paw print.
    The three biologists crept through an alder thicket, careful not to let branches scrape against nylon backpacks. Adult wolves are generally relaxed around den sites, said Robinson, who has approached within 15 feet of one without it noticing her. But suspicious noises could alert the adults, who would immediately try to move the pups to a new location.
    "Wolfy," Robinson whispered about the atmosphere, as the group reached the creek bottom. A hemlock canopy filtered the light, and the bleached bones of an old kill were scattered along the stream bank. Robinson peered inside the den, located beneath the intertwined roots of two ancient cedar trees. Two wolf pups snoozed near the entrance. One pup's leg twitched in its sleep.
    As the pups woke up, they stared at the intruders with still-developing eyesight, lifting tiny muzzles to sniff the air. Robinson had covered an escape route at the back of the den with a backpack, but one pup darted out through another bolt hole.
    After giving up the chase, Robinson made puppy noises, trying to coax the pup back to the den. The whines caught the attention of an adult wolf, which trotted toward the den site with a bone for the pups to play with. It dropped the bone when it saw the biologists, melting back into the trees.
    Unlike bears and moose, wolves don't actively defend their young. But the hillsides soon rang with alarm barks that ended in mournful howls. "They're not happy," Robinson said, as she prepared to crawl inside the den.
    Young wolves likely an easier target
    This is Idaho Fish and Game's second year of outfitting pups with radio collars. Last year, Robinson collared 15 pups from two North Idaho packs. Five are still alive; seven were killed by hunters and trappers; and three died of unknown causes.
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