June 26 • 10:41 PM

Wolf family "Starting Over" in Michigan's Lower Peninsula

Documented In Cheboygan County...

Though at first glance this looks like an adult coyote, it is, indeed a wolf pup, among the first confirmed to be born in the Lower Peninsula in the past 100 years. MDNRE photo

September 01, 2010
On July 27, 2010, the Michigan DNRE distributed a press release with the subject line: "Wolf Pup Captured and Released in Northern Lower Peninsula."

Three days later, from an undisclosed location deep in the woods of Cheboygan County near the northern tip of the Michigan mitten, Don Lonsway called with more news: The trapped wolf was but one of three pups in a small litter.

Lonsway's official capacity with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services is "Wolf Specialist ... or Wolf Manager. They use both terms."

After a stint with the Michigan DNR, he's been with the USDA for 10 years. Counting his time with both departments he's racked up "21 years just working on this wolf program in the state of Michigan. Though in July he found himself far from his home base, Ironwood at the far western end of the U.P., he was not prowling through unfamiliar territory. Working under the direction of the DNRE, he had been on the case of the adult wolves since their tracks were confirmed in the Lower Peninsula last March.

"I'm the guy that came down here and verified them tracks. ... A lot of time went by between when I confirmed the tracks and when I could set traps. We have research trapping that I also do each spring and early summer in the U.P. I was working on four depredation cases at the same time. Plus I had to do some trapping with GPS collars for a Ph.D. student from Notre Dame."

Once he returned to the Lower Peninsula, Lonsway had additional concerns beyond trying to locate the wolves again. Wolves don't read well enough to keep to the green areas on county maps, so Lonsway had to negotiate some private property agreements for setting up his traps. Among the property owners was the University of Michigan.

Also, "a local bear hunter was training his hounds in one section, and we had to ask him if he thought it was OK to set traps in hopes of collaring a wolf. He was real good about it. He moved and trained in another area. That was really helpful. If it wasn't for the private agreements, the university, the bear hunter, we probably couldn't have trapped at this time of year. We usually quit our research trapping as soon as it's legal to train bear dogs."

The photo that accompanied the DNRE's press release left loads of people scratching their heads. The animal in the image sure looks like a coyote.

Acknowledging the similarity in appearances, Lonsway said, "You can see why some people shoot a young wolf and think they've gotten a coyote."

He estimated the wolf pup at the time of its capture was probably 12 weeks old and weighed 23 to 25 pounds.

"I lifted the lip and the canine (tooth) was only about the size of a piece of rice. There were no other teeth in the mouth. No pre-molars or molars.

"The legs on the pup of a wolf are very long. A longer leg, and that leg is real stocky all the way down from the elbow joint to the foot. There's no taper. A coyote leg will taper down to the ankle.

"He was probably as tall as an adult male coyote. His body length would have been shorter. And this is a pup. Coyote pups are smaller yet."

Another reason the pup looks like a coyote is there was no time for posed pictures. No time to illustrate the stocky legs or the pup's comparatively large feet. A student worker stood by and snapped photos as Lonsway worked on a wolf that was fully awake and aware of his surroundings the entire time.

"If I can handle pups without using drugs on them, I won't use them. We have to pull blood for DNA tests. Pull some hair samples. Put a tag on his ear." The wolf was about two weeks too young for Lonsway to feel comfortable putting a tracking collar on it.

He uses a medium-weight leghold trap for his work, "modified to do the least amount of damage to wolves. It's got offset jaws. The offset on them is enough so that it's like the pup is in a handcuff. There's no pressure on the bone or leg. It just holds them. Usually they are just sitting there looking at you when you show up."

Also when he showed up, he learned more than he could have from just the pup itself.

"It was a sandy spot. Adult tracks, both the male and female, were around the spot. There were tracks of two other pups. The next day, I seen what direction they left in from there. I cut up on a sand road, saw where a female and three pups came up and headed to a rendezvous site.

"A day later than that, I walked down to a ridge area where I thought they might pause or make a rendezvous site. I saw the three pups laying on the bank of that rise."

A rendezvous site is an area to where the wolf family relocates as the pups get older, bigger and start playing outside.

"These are areas where they move the pups to after they leave the den. The parents leave the pups there" while they go off hunting. "They raise them there. Then they will move them to another little site. They'll do that until the middle or end of September. Then the pups will start going on longer and longer hunts with the adults. They'll cover more distance until the end of October when they'll run on the hunts with the adults.

Lonsway is confident that there are just two adults in the area so far, "just floating, crossing in an out of fields, crossing through forests. There are so few wolf prints here you can go days without seeing any. As for scat, I've only seen one or two since I've been here. When you have a group you're going to see scat. You're going to see tracks. They're hunting, making a lot of tracks in the night. We'll see more activity on the roads when the pups get moving. We're going to see more tracks, both adult and the pups."

Lonsway's trapping strategy is to "kind of sprinkle (trap) sets around and see what happens." In other words, getting a wolf to the trap is a matter of educated guesses and good luck.

"It's knowing the kind of country they travel and routes they'd travel and hoping that when he comes through he'll come through at a time when you're still there. You're not hoping for an overnight catch. You just hope one happens by you.

"You just hope they pop out where you've got the traps set. You look at some areas on some of these woods roads and two track roads. Some just aren't in the right areas for wolves, not good woods for them. You try to set up at intersections, little grassy intersections, and hope he comes through.

"It's really hard to target those animals when there are so few of them. Especially with pups. When you have those pups and adults they are really busy. Bringing in food. The male is busy scent marking his territory. As far as luring them in with trapping lure, forget about it. They don't get the scent from distances; you have to get it in close where they can scent it. If they're busy enough they will ignore scents and lures because they're going back and forth so much."

Also, if wolves have traveled a lot, there's a good chance they've gotten caught in traps before. "They learn through bad experiences and they learn fast. You've got a collared wolf causing trouble? Good luck trapping him again. He will stop at traps and not look at them. He will walk around them. Some will even dig them up."

Doing some research by request during another phone call, Tim Reis the DNRE's Northeast Michigan Unit Supervisor for Wildlife found that the average size litter of wolves is seven pups, with as few as four and as many as 10 or more. Does Lonsway expect to find more pups are part of this litter?

"No. It could be the first time she had pups, and she had a small litter. It could be because there's only two adults. In the U.P. if we get a den site with six pups, that's a lot. In a larger pack the dominant male and female will have the litter and other members will actually help with the care of the pups. There are more kills going on so more food will be available.

"Even babysitting at some times. That way the mother won't have to sit there all the time. She can get out and go hunting. She gets rambunctious when she's sitting there the first few weeks with the pups. Wolves are programmed to roam, and she's held down with the pups. She likes to get out as soon as possible. Sometimes another member will babysit. It doesn't matter how many pack members there are. They'll have other pack members watch the pups so the female can go run around a little bit."

In the end, a pup in the trap delivers about the best news a researcher could hope for.

"As soon as the pup was caught that gave us more information of what's going on down here than if I had caught an adult and radio collared it. When that pup was caught, we now know there is a breeding population documented in lower Michigan for the first time in many, many years. That's telling you that the area is right. They can live here.

"It's kind of like starting all over."

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