The mythology of the wolf vastly outstrips scientific knowledge of the species in the mind of the average citizen. The present article, based on research in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, redresses this imbalance by showing an "up close and personal" view of a classical den site. It shows first how to respect the security and privacy of the animals, and then how to recognize and interpret the basic elements of a site such as pathways, den openings, and tracks. This kind of look at the "material culture" of a typical pack can replace ideology and fantasy about the species with respect, awe, and intimacy, and so help to form a corresponding "pack" of knowledgeable stakeholders committed to its preservation.
Keywords: endangered species, gray wolf, tracking, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming.
The current controversy over the delisting and relisting of the gray wolf as an endangered species has made accurate information about its population and behavior crucial. Yet the wolf has remained an elusive species because of its near extinction, its avoidance of humans, and until fairly recently, a lack of systematic research.
Ignorance, therefore, including misinformation and disinformation-not to mention mystification- characterizes the mass public. The wolf is largely an abstraction viewed as a fantasy and not a reality in popular media, literature, and other circles. For example, much of our so-called knowledge is based on packs in captivity rather than knowledge built on scientific observation and study of wolves in the wild. Few people have an intimate understanding of the daily life of wolves in the wild, which makes close identification with them extremely difficult.
This report sheds some light on the gap in academic knowledge by describing the classic wolf den site. The description is based on the author's research as a tracker on a project directed by Cristina Eisenberg of Oregon State University and supported by Glacier National Park; Waterton Lakes National Park; University of Alberta; Boone and Crockett; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Nature Conservancy; and other bodies. It applies to the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, and somewhat more generally to those U.S. states with the largest wolf populations in the west of the lower 48 states (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming).
Before approaching a known den site, out of respect for the security of the animals and their sensitivity to human encroachment, an etiquette protocol needs to be followed. One should park vehicles far away and walk quietly to the site. A different route to and from the den needs to be taken each day to avoid leaving a visible trail. One should also check for nearby wolf presence lest their survival routines be disturbed. In addition to radio beeps (if some of the wolves have been collared) and live sightings in the vicinity, telltale signals include fresh track and sign, howling, and recent reports of wildlife professionals, local residents, and tourists. If the animals are very close, the investigation should be aborted and scheduled for later. To minimize disruption, time at the site should be short and spent quietly. It is also important to leave as few human scents as possible (for example, by eating and urinating far away from the den), while not removing anything unless absolutely necessary.
A den usually forms the hub of what trackers call a hub-and-spoke, or cluster, junction of routine pathways. Given the frequent trips of the wolves to the site, as well as the large size of the many animals who often travel together, the paths are usually deep, wide, and well trodden. Some paths are known to have been used for up to twenty years and so are aptly called "ancestral trails."
Wolves register the typical canid track showing claws and four fairly large toe pads but a comparatively small triangular heel pad. Under the right conditions the number of prints may help gauge pack size, while the ratio of small to large prints can offer a clue as to litter size. …