I hadn’t planned on writing about Javelinas. Not having grown up around them or even ever seeing one, I certainly wasn’t poised to share much. But I was recently invited to Arizona by my buddy Preston Taylor to visit him during his first Javelina hunt. Preston’s been trying to get me and others to join him for a Javelina hunt for years and he finally decided to go without any of his normal hunting mates. Well, that’s only partly true because his actual mate and wife, the lovely Heather Taylor joined him. Not as a bystander. Heather picked up her own bow and went hunting with Preston.
Preston signed up to go on a hosted hunt put on by the Professional Bowhunter Society to finally follow through on his desire, nay, his need to hunt Javelina. The organization sets up member hunts around the country, usually hosted by a member who has access or knowledge of a place and arranges to be available as an unofficial guide/host. It could be a bear hunt in Alaska, turkey hunting in Virginia, or whitetail deer hunting in Ohio. In this case, it was a Peccary hunt in south eastern Arizona and hosted by an easy to be around, salt of the earth type who comfortably filled the role of hunt host both for his inclusive attitude, as well as his experience bowhunting for these interesting animals.
Rick invited a group of archers to one of his hunting areas knowing that members of the PBS would all be conscientious hunters who would treat the place and the animals with respect. They’d each go their own way into the desert wilderness (or with a hunting partner) and try to locate, stalk, and hunt the elusive, hardscrabble Javelina who makes their living in an extremely harsh environment.
Not far from the famed Apache war chief Cochise’s stronghold just north of the rocky and scrubby Dragoon mountains, right in the heart of Apacheria, I made my way to the PBS hunt camp. I just happened to be passing through the area and arranged to stop in and camp with my travel mates to visit with Preston and Heather for an evening. Little did I know, that my interest would instantaneously be piqued by the ubiquitous desert dwelling Collared Peccary.
The collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), or javelina as it’s known, looks at a distance like a small wild hog. Built similarly with hog-like features, this desert native is quite unique in its adaptations, both physically and behaviorally. It’s a small animal, as are many of the desert creatures, and like it’s cousin the feral hog, has a large flat snout that it uses for rooting and finding food. Many desert plants, like animals, keep a big part of their physical selves underground. It’s an ingenious survival strategy where surface water is scarce and daytime temperatures can be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and javelinas are well adapted to finding and digging these tuber-like plants from deep underground.
In a landscape where everything seems scratchy, sharp, pokey, thorny and rough, the javelina fits right in. In fact the one that Preston shot with his hand carved self made longbow had long hair that felt almost quill like and teeth that were keen, sharp and very threatening looking. Her hide was tough and thick and she had long eyelashes and facial whiskers that would be very helpful in a thorny environment, allowing her to feel the interminable sharps in the dark before her eyes got pierced. She had no tail but at the top of her rump there was a gland, and when threatened the hairs around the gland stood on end appearing like the ‘hackles’ on a dogs neck. I wasn’t able to get a good whiff, but I’m guessing the odors from this rump gland are why one name for javelina is skunk pig. The hair on the neck also stands on end creating a ‘hackles up’ appearance on these little hog cousins.
The tayassu was assumed to have split off from suids long ago in evolutionary time, but more recent DNA evidence is pointing to a parallel evolution. It turns out tayassu evolved in the Americas. Even more interesting to find in my research, they evolved in North America and migrated south, down the Panamanian land bridge (probably) as opposed to a south to north assumed(mine) migration. This is a N.A. native, and extinct species of peccary have been found all the way north across the N.A. continent to the Yukon territory. Fossil records show that the N.A. plains north used to be a drier, more arid climate, perfect for the pecarry of the day.
The collared peccary today lives across the southwest from Texas to Arizona. I couldn’t figure why there weren’t any javelinas in California, until I dug into it a bit and even still, I’m not sure. The best explanation I can find is that the Colorado Desert in southeastern Cali is the driest, hottest, most inhospitable and arid part of the great North American desert possibly being the deterrent keeping javelinas from inhabiting our state. Where food is scarce and water even more so, it seems the Colorado Desert keeps the peccary out. This is subject to change in the not too distant future though. West of this arid desert is great peccary habitat, and the work of humans making roads, irrigation ditches, green grassy yards, golf courses, and croplands to/in and through the Colorado might give this adaptive animal the foothold it needs to populate our state. We’ll see.
What I also found fascinating, was their physiological and behavioral adaptations to the desert. For one, they walk everywhere. It was a couple days of observing them before I realized that the javelinas were walking instead of trotting! This may not at first make the alarm bells go off for the reader, but when I noticed it, bells went off for me. In the extreme dry heat of the desert, walking makes much more sense than trotting as far as generating heat and I noticed that besides running from immediate danger, these hog like creatures do a slow walk wherever they go. Even when running from danger, they don’t run far and rely on a combination of quick initial movement and even quicker aggression and posturing to defend themselves. Then they just walk off seemingly calm as a cucumber.
In hotter months, javelinas will move their foraging and drinking to the night time, staying in shade during the day to remain cool. They will also wallow in water if it’s available to cool off and I’ve read that they can even use dust bathing to cool down. Also, the black tips of their hair break off in the summer and the lighter hair can and does reflect some heat and cut down on radiation of heat in the hair and close to the body, helping to keep the animal a bit cooler. Also, during dehydration, peccaries can reduce evaporative and urinary water losses by up to 80% lowering their water needs.
Scientists are unsure of how much straight water a javelina needs. It’s not a lot and studies have shown that they “need very little” if they have succulents in their diet and that they’ve “been known to go 6 days without a drink”.
In the winter, the black tips grow back on the hair and this helps in absorbing heat. Also, their bodies will operate at a higher core temperature increasing their need for food intake, and this is reflected in how much they eat. Subtle but interesting adaptations to life in an extreme place.
Here was another thing I enjoyed learning. As such a small animal, they’d need some adaptation to protect themselves from the potential predators that they’d encounter in the south west. From mountain lion, to coyote, to Mexican grey wolf and jaguar, there’s plenty for the peccary to have to look out for. And defend against. One way this is done is by ‘strength in numbers’. Packs of up to 50+ Javelinas is not unheard of and with their aggressive natures, can be an extremely formidable foe. I’ve obviously never witnessed it myself, but I can easily envision these animals fending off about any predator in the right situation.
I’m going to go out on a limb here as I’m inclined to sometimes do and say that I’d bet that javelinas, in areas where wolves and jaguars and lions are more likely to be sharing habitat with them, would run in the larger packs, also known as squadrons. Besides a stealth attack where a lion quickly caught a small peccary and ran off with it, I could imagine that a squadron could harass a lion enough to drive it off. Also, the peccary, as we know them here in the states, inhabits a landscape of openness and the preferred area of cats is in areas of relatively good cover. Of course these environments and animals overlap which is relationship that’s been going on long before we arrived on the scene.
Preston and Heather had been hunting javelina for almost a week when I arrived with fellow animal trackers Abel and Susan Bean, and after the PBS guys graciously invited us to pitch our tents and prepare ourselves for a feast, began telling us about their hunts and newfound respect and admiration for these variable animals. Pres had killed the one and Heather had been attempting to get one herself, but her future farmer childhood had given her a deep love for hogs and everytime she got within the shooting distance of 10-15 yards, she just wanted to watch and appreciate them instead of trying to put an arrow into one. She called them cute which they are, and her and Pres shared their already many behavioral observations with us, and of real interest to me was they way peccaries used facial expression as a visible threat to humans while slowly walking away to avoid them.
Heather said that once the javelina knew there were humans right amongst them, they’d head out but would occasionally turn their heads back and open their mouths widely, showing their fearsome ‘fangs’ in a display. A seemingly obvious aggressive posturing tactic that, in the case of someone pursuing, would certainly be menacing in appearance.
Javelinas have canines that form large extremely sharp cutters on both their upper and lower jaws and use these effective weapons for defense as well as for fighting amongst themselves. The ones Preston showed me were over an inch long on both the upper and lower and sharp enough to be very dangerous to anyone on the receiving end. Of interest to me is the way they use gaping mouths as posturing which is a very low energy expenditure way of self preservation and protection that certainly works against us humans and probably does the same for other potential predators.
The first thing I usually hear about javelinas is how aggressive and dangerous they are, but upon watching them myself, and talking to others who spend time watching them from a curious mindset, I find that they’re extremely loving and affectionate. Being the social animal that they are, they’ve developed lots of ways to maintain connection and close quarters that are subtle and easy to miss if we’re seeing them as dangerous and troublesome. A majority of the websites about javelinas, including those of the Arizona Game and Fish, focus a lot on the peccary as a nuisance. It never ceases to amaze me that we can go out into the desert, build a house and plant a lawn, and then call the native species a nuisance when they come eat the fresh green grass in our yards. It’s the same mindset that almost led to the complete eradication (genocide) of the natives of this land. “They’re in the way of progress (modern civilized perspective) and need to either join us or be removed.”
While in the Gila wilderness, I was talking to some locals about wildlife. Good salt of the earth country people who’d give you the shirt off their back and wave at literally every car that drives by. When I brought up the Mexican grey wolf, their response was usually “oh, we don’t need wolves around here. We have (domestic) animals.” Or, “wolves are the reason our elk numbers are way down.”
Now, I understand the rancher mindset. I grew up in rural California where the answer to any wildlife problem was usually to kill it, but we’re talking about a native species that was rescued from the brink of extinction and is still teetering there(the wolf). An animal that we can live with and have for tens of thousands of years until the ‘new’ european mindset towards any threat to ‘our’ environment came along. With our overpopulation of the country, nay the world, we’ve got to come up with a new mindset or we won't have wildlife left for the future generations to enjoy. And that’s still an ego-centric perspective. Who are we to decide the fate of a whole species according to our ideas of what we will want to enjoy in the supposed future? What about what’s natural? What about what’s good for the environmental future? We’re just finally (scientifically) becoming aware of how important apex predators are on the landscape, and we’re just scratching the surface of understanding the complexity of life on this planet. Anyhow…….
Wolves and elk and mountain lions and javelinas have been coexisting for eons and it’s only in recent years that humans with our big brains have altered the environment enough that species are going extinct at an alarming rate due to habitat loss. Or perhaps it’s a natural mass extinction. I don’t know and that’s a philosophical discussion way too big for me here and not one I’m willing to try to tackle anyhow. I have my biases for sure. But it’s my hope that the grandchildren can go to the desert someday and find a mexican grey wolf track like me and my tracking friends were able to do recently.
My friend Abel, of the Teaching Drum Outdoor School, had been to the great state of Texas recently and got to go out with a colleague there, Dave Scott of Earth Native Wilderness School. They were animal tracking in Big Bend National Park and while camping there, had javelinas come right through their camp. Abel told me the story and what struck him, besides the fact that the peccaries seemed unafraid, was how the babies stayed right with their mother. He noticed that they were literally walking under her a lot of the time and she seemed ever mindful of them and he said it was sweet.
I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time looking at this myself, but on our recent trip, I saw a mother and a young and that’s exactly how they moved. At one point, they smelled me and headed directly away, and the young javelina was right with her momma the whole time. Almost never losing physical contact. The implication of this didn’t lose its relevance on me. I remember hearing about how human babies in orphanages (somewhere in europe) many years ago would literally die if they didn’t have physical contact and how important it was for the nurses to hold all of them. This rings true for me and is consistent with my observations of all social animals. There’s lots of physical contact. Especially when there’s young involved. From wolves to humans to feral hogs to javelinas, and on and on.
Abels, Prestons and Heathers observations of javelina social dynamics, affection, feelings and intimacy are congruent with my own observations, and while some might think of these perspectives as kind of “hippy”, or “unscientific” they all come from totally different backgrounds and are experientially developed viewpoints built on time, observation and openness of mind, as well as varied perspective. In my research, I found that scientists studying javelinas found that putting them in individual pens alone caused all kinds of problems for the animals and for the scientists. Social animals just don’t do well alone. They actually need other animals of their species, and in some cases, need a minimum amount of other animals to interact with to be able to function healthily.
Javelinas have a rich social scent marking culture. I don’t know much about it, but I know they scent mark lots of items on the landscape, notably rocks and trees. They also mark each other. I’ve watched them stand head to rump and simultaneously rub their heads on each other's rump glands, ostensibly keeping easily identifiable to each other as well as to other packs.
Upon arriving at the PBS sponsored hunt, Preston immediately began cooking us a lunch of, you guessed it, javelina. The meat looked and smelled just about exactly like wild hog meat and I was anxious to taste this distant desert relative of the hog. At this point, I hadn’t done much research on these animals, and knew nothing of how most folks won't eat one. I’ve since heard that a lot of guys shoot them and just throw them away. This boggles my mind, as I was raised to “eat what you kill”, and oh was I glad to eat my first bite of peccary. Prestons meat cooking culinary complexity consisted of zero spice, fried in some grease so as not to bastardize the subtle flavor of this delicious desert animal. I described it as tender/tough if there’s such a thing, and that is how it seemed to me. When I bit into it, it was deliciously tender, and yet it took a little pleasant chewing to break it down. It would have been hard for anyone to tell that it wasn’t pork and could easily pass as such. Pres also slow cooked a bunch of the meat, and later that night we enjoyed perfectly pulled-porkish javelina that was a blessing to any tongue, along with salad and chili pitched in by other generous members of the Professional Bowhunters Society hunters.
The liver Preston cooked up for me and him and our smaller group. Many folks won’t eat liver, but we are lovers of the rich organ meats and again, I was not disappointed. This liver had no gall bladder to remove and lightly cooked tasted mild, rich and delicious. A real treat in the cold high desert.
A couple of things:
-Pres cooked up the first meat for us and it was a bit pink. Him being an extremely well informed hunter, and us being usual eaters of many things that other folks don’t eat, I wasn’t worried about the javelina being undercooked as I would be about bear, hog or raccoon. Javelinas are not omnivorous like the feral hog and mainly eat plant foods and their meat has been extensively looked at and they don’t carry trichinosis.
-Because of this, they don’t need the gall-bladder as do the hog and bear to break down the meat and fat of their ‘prey’. Be it killed themselves, or scavenged.
Javelinas are quite unique in their intestinal tract. Called a pseudo-ruminant, they have a four chambered stomach that is different from the four chambered stomach of true ruminants. They don’t ‘chew their cud’ like a true ruminant but can digest fiber and cellulose with an efficiency somewhere between a mono-gastric and a ruminant animal. Most of the fermenting happens in the largest part of their stomach known as the forestomach. Their four chambered stomachs are not always four. Studies have shown that their stomach chambers can be closed off either at will, or unconsciously and can at times be open between chambers. They also have an appendix. Very few kinds of animals have appendixes with primates being one. Neither hogs nor ruminant animals do.
The diet of the javelina is what we’d consider fairly poor. For example, prickly pear cactus leaves are 80 percent water suggesting that these animals would have to eat a lot of this food to extract the necessary caloric and nutritional content needed. It’s also a rough food to be eating. For instance the fruits of the cactus are covered in both small and big thorns. Thousands of them, and yet, javelinas have seemingly no problem eating this food and while I’ve not been able to inspect one myself, the inside of their mouths must have some tough adaptations to be able to do this. As well, after consuming a bunch of prickly pear thorns and hairlike stickers, the stomachs of the javelinas seem not to be affected negatively. Also, the way the upper and lower blade like incisors lock in, javelinas don’t have a huge ability to grind their teeth from side to side so have to rely on their teeth just smashing their food and the bacteria in their guts to help them break these foods down. And the foods they eat sure seem rough.
A ruminant uses fermentation to not only break down foods, but to create foods. Byproducts of the fermentation of plant materials can be what is ingested and the bacteria is what makes this happen. Ruminants rely on short chain fatty acids for their energy needs while monogastric stomach animals rely largely on glucose for energy. Also, ruminants rely on regurgitation to be able to re-grind their foods when back in a safe location and then send it back down to the bacteria to be further broken down. Javelinas are unable to regurgitate so their bacterial breakdowns are different as are their foods, which is why the term pseudo ruminant is used for them.
Turns out, peccaries are perfectly suited for life in the desert southwest. Imagine that.
We saw peccary tracks from elevations of around 4000 feet (I’m sure they go much lower), up to almost 8000 feet, even though a google search claims they live from 1000-5000 feet in elevation. From a very open sonoran type desert to the forested pinyon-juniper slopes. From the high rocky rim to the sandy desert. We saw tracks in deep dark canyons dominated by larger pinyon pine and ponderosa and open river valleys of willow and cottonwood.
While their home ranges are relatively small (usually less than a mile and a half square) the javelinas geographical range stretches from the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona through central America and south America to Argentina. South of the border, the collared peccary shares habitat with two other species, the White-Lipped and the Chacaon. Incredibly a fourth species was discovered and listed in 2007! It’s a large, jungle living species that lives in pairs called the Giant Peccary. Of course native people in Brazil have known about and hunted this species for probably eons. Interestingly the native Brazilian name for them translates as: “large peccary that lives in pairs”.
One really unusual thing about javelinas is their back feet. While the fronts look an awful lot like a tiny hog track, both with rounded cloven hooves and dewclaws, their back feet have normal although small hog like hooves, they only have one dewclaw on their rear foot. Their bones of the wrist are fused into one and there’s just the single inner dewclaw on each hind hoof. I have no idea how this adaptation came about and can’t even imagine why, but they’re all like that.
Always fascinated with the hows, discovering new (to me) animals in a new environment is one of my great joys and the javelina/desert environment was far from disappointing in this respect. The javelina, where present, left pervasive feeding sign that was easy to discover and interpret and in a short time became obvious to me and my compadres. In some cases it was shocking how big and deep these foraging digs were and in one case, I climbed into one excavation to have my picture taken, so as to show the size. Peccary feeding sign is quite prevalent and is usually either digging, rooting or browsing and a little time spent in javelina country will quickly pay off in recognition. As always in a new environment, I didn’t spend near enough time to uncover some of the mysteries there, but was able to see and learn quite a bit.
One thing I discovered that I’m uncertain of, is that it seemed like the peccaries were digging down next to large cottonwoods in the river flats. Right down along the bark searching for something. While I couldn’t find any sign of a plant food being foraged there, I’m assuming that they were digging out some insect or insect larvae. My friend and colleague Tamarack Song suggested that it could be a behavior correlated with digging up some kind of fungus that’s associated with the root of the cottonwood tree and it’s another theory that makes a lot of sense to me. A mystery like many, many others that’ll maybe be solved another time.
I’m so unqualified to write about tracking of the peccary that I hesitated to do so, but, my recent experience was so rich with their tracks and sign that I thought I’d share some of what I saw, both mysteries and stories.
If you saw the tracks of a javelina and there was nothing in the picture to show relative size, you’d be hard pressed to tell if they were feral hog(ave. Size around 130lbs) or javelina(ave. Size around 45lbs). They look that similar (besides the size). But if you were to look closer, there are some things that stand out differently. I already mentioned that javelinas walk everywhere and this is reflected in their footprints. It’s hard to describe how one track can seemingly have more energy than another, and the best we can do is talk about characteristics that are easily noticeable and then imagine and describe what could make those characteristics happen. For instance, an energetic track will have more disturbance than a more calm track. It may be deeper into the soil. It may have dirt sprayed around the track from the tiny explosion of the foot impacting the dirt. The tracks might be farther apart indicating that the animal was perhaps trotting instead of walking. In these ways, we can infer energetics as well as interpretations.
This interpretation for me is part of the fun of tracking. It’s how I come up with the stories and hypotheses that enriches my experience and continues to bring home that I'm an animal too. I respond with feelings to stimuli just like my animal kin. And I find that as I get older, stories, connections, and relationships are what excite me
So, javelina tracks are like miniature hog tracks who walk instead of trot. The average stride from one side of the body to the other was a mere 10-12 inches with the track sizes about the size of the end of my thumb from last knuckle to nail (about an inch).
Of special interest to me, these animals have only the one dewclaw on the inner hind foot. This isn’t really significant for tracking as the dew claws on javelina rarely show, but of interest because it’s a unique adaptation that I’ve never heard of in any animal.
Because of their small home range, when we found javelina tracks, we usually found lots of them. They appear to fan out for feeding and go near single file while traveling. They created and used regular trails that are like cute, tiny little cow trails on the landscape and it was easy to tell that they were javelina trails. Although at times, we saw other animals using them too. Like deer, and coati as well as skunk and mountain lion.
We saw a lot of feeding sign and most of it was either digging, rooting, or browsing. The first two are easy sign to tell from other species, while the latter I’m unable to discern from other animals' feeding sign. Always looking for an excuse to travel back to the desert, I may have just found myself a good one. I wasn’t there long enough to see any remains of mesquite seed feeding sign or acorn, and I know that peccary eat these, but it was the wrong season and the fresh sign was concentrated around the current foods.
Preston and Heather told us about some other sign that we never got to see, but it’s such a testament to the hardiness of the javelina that I thought I’d pass along their observation. They explained how the peccary would eat into the heart area of the yucca plant. This is a basal leafed plant whose leaves all have a stiff thorn. Stiff enough that if you were to fall on one, it could seriously injure you. These spikes combined with leaf edges that can cut you makes this plant one to avoid, but the javelina is able to get to the center of the plant and eat their way to the heart. Think of a dangerous artichoke.
It took me a minute to recognize the javelina rooting sign. I’m used to deep rooting done by wild hogs and javelina rooting is shallow. What I saw looks more like turkey’s scratching in the leaf litter than rooting, but it’s what the peccaries were doing. I don’t know what they were after, but it wasn’t deep. Just under the duff. Perhaps they root deeper, but in this place, this time of year it’s what I saw. Their digging for tubers I already mentioned, deep holes dug with their feet instead of snout and large enough to literally bury themselves in. Very conspicuous sign.
I look forward to being in javelina country again. There’s so much more for me to learn from and about them, but this ‘scratch in the surface’ knowledge that I gained will certainly stay with me.
The Mexican Wolf
Aldo Leopold describes watching a Mexican wolf die: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”
“I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
We were headed to New Mexico to go tracking, visit some hot springs and enjoy some sunshine after several winter months in northern Wisconsin. While the animal tracking in snow is often rockin’, we were hoping to get into some desert country and track creatures in the dirt for a while. Some new scenery with a nice little vacation was definitely in order so we started preparing.
We’d fly down to Tucson, rent a car, and head for the desert mountains of south eastern Az. and south western NM.
While we’ve been steeped in rich animal tracking, regularly following bobcat, red fox, coyote, fisher and wolf, the chance to head for Apache country was something my compadres and I were excited to do. The Apache people are said to be some of the best trackers in history and it makes rational sense as all native people who lived in desert country developed rich tracking skills and cultures, the Apache being one of the richest.
Not long before we headed out, Tamarack Song pulled me aside and said “hey, you’re going to the Gila. That’s Mexican Wolf country. Get me a picture of a Mexican Wolf track for my files, would you?”
I hadn’t thought of this. I was thinking, desert animals, like javelina and hog nosed skunk. Perhaps coati. For me, seeing the tracks of these animals would be quite exotic and the chance to follow them around heavenly. Wolf wasn’t in my radar at the least. Let alone the Mexican variety.
I shrugged off Tamaracks suggestion with a comment like “sure, I’ll keep my eyes open for you” but didn’t figure I’d have the opportunity to follow through. You see, Mexican Grey Wolves are extremely rare. With maybe 140 left in the wild, they’re on the brink of extinction.
When he mentioned Mexican Wolves to me, I had just about zero knowledge of them except a faint notion that they were in the southwest. I actually thought he was talking about the Red Wolf, of which I had heard were nothing more than a wolf/coyote hybrid. I guess in the back of my uneducated mind, I thought they were one and the same.
Of course, I was going to keep my eyes open for them. I’m deeply passionate about wildlife and nature, and one of the best ways to know directly about animals’ lives is through the doorway of tracking. This is one of the skills I’ve developed over the years that I learned largely by default. In fact, it’s in some ways an innate skill. In the simplest form, tracking is pattern recognition, something our minds are built for. I suppose honing of the skill amounts to looking at the ground a lot and becoming familiar with what you see. Really, it’s that simple.
When I go into a new area, I look at everything, and I usually immediately start to recognize patterns. A squirrel trail in the snow of Wisconsin will look an awful lot like a squirrel trail in New Mexico. And it goes deeper than this. When I say I look, I feel and smell and listen to the landscape and the stories begin to talk. Perhaps I’ll notice the feeding sign of a vole on the base of a tree, alerting me to their presence. Maybe I’ll notice where a deer rubbed its antlers on a willow, or the rooting sign of a wild hog. I may recognize the nest of a robin or the sign of a sapsucker.
In this way, I’ll become acquainted with the land and its animals, and a comforting feeling will slowly settle into me. I’ll feel home very quickly and this enriches my experience.
It’s the same for the plants and trees. As I walk among them, I recognize. Even if I’ve never been to an area, much of what I encounter will be familiar. Perhaps I’m in a part of the world that’s completely foreign. Still the patterns emerge. I may not know a species of plant, but often I will recognize the cousin of a plant I know. Its family. In this way, I might know instantly that I can eat the berry from it as all Currant family fruits are edible, for instance. I may recognize an oak tree and instinctively know that it’s a major food provider to the denizens of the area. I can poke around and see who is feeding on the acorns, recognizing feeding sign of particular animals or birds on the nuts themselves. Every animal that feeds on an acorn, does so in a bit of a different way, and by recognizing these different feeding sign, or detritus laying around, I can start to know who is dependent on the trees around me.
This familiarity that provides me with such connection, is just that. Familiarity. It comes from being outside and paying attention and learning and recognizing patterns. It’s really quite simple and its the way we are built. Its our natural way. Looking at tracks and reading the stories from the landscape is what we’re designed to do and have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s one of my joys for sure.
I love to travel to new areas and get out in nature to immerse myself. I love to interact with wildlife and watch them in their worlds. I love to find tracking mysteries and work out a plausible story for what I’m seeing. Kill sites fascinate me and discovering and investigating one gives me great joy. The life and death story playing itself out under our noses is as wild and dramatic as anything happening on the African savannahs, and tracking is one of the best ways to see this unfolding. It’s recognizable symbols and patterns that can convey incredibly detailed information to us, allowing us to use our frontal lobes to weave intricate ever evolving stories of the mysterious and cryptic lives of the animals around us.
For these reasons and more, Abel, Sue and I were headed to the desert southwest. Combining a leisure trip to the natural hot springs with the opportunity to track wildlife was a win-win in my opinion. Top that with the seeing of dear friends while down there, and it was a no-brainer.
For the sake of following through with my word to Tamarack, as well as to learn myself, while enroute and in airports I started checking around the internet for information on the Mexican Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). I figured I’d at least prepare myself for the disappointment of not finding their tracks. The first website I looked at made me change my opinion. Apparently, The Mexican Grey Wolf (MGW) reintroduction area and the last stronghold of a species barely hanging on was right in the area we were headed. Interesting…. The article I was reading went on to say that there were around 140 wolves left in the southwest. Not very many by any stretch and the area designated for their ‘refuge’ was large. Really large.
I was also struck by reading that these wolves were not coyote/wolf hybrids. They were grey wolves through and through. I had had no idea. My interest was growing.
After two days of travel, we arrived in Silver City and we immediately went to the National Forest headquarters there to talk with the resident biologists and see what information we could gather before heading into the wilderness. As is normal in my travels when looking for information, the kind folks at the front desk could tell us nothing about wolves. In fact, they seemed barely aware that there was a reintroduction program going on right under their noses.
Carl and Rick did share their love of the desert and mountains as well as phone numbers for the biologists that they thought could help, so with these numbers and a stack of free maps resplendent with Ricks notes and scribbles, we headed into the Gila.
The biologists didn’t get back to me which was no surprise. I haven’t found many federal biologists who’ve been very helpful. I’m sure they have a lot on their plates and a random phone call from a stranger asking them about something they maybe don’t know much about might seem like a waste of their time.
So, into the Gila we went.
The Gila National Forest is one of the gems of our country. It’s a magical place made so special partly because thankfully, gold was never found there. This is relevant to someone who loves the wide-open spaces like myself, because the lack of mining means no roads. There are hardly any houses, towns or roads in the 3.3-million-acre Gila making it one of the darkest places in the country at night. In fact, there’s a National Forest campground in the Gila on the registrar of the International Dark Sky Association. The IDSA encourages and keeps track of areas of the country/world where light pollution is at a minimum. Great places to stargaze, and many gazers of the night sky make these designated location visits on their lists of places to see stars.
It turns out that light pollution negatively affects wildlife. Not surprising and I’m thankful that there are places like the Gila to offer refuge for at least some of our wildlife.
The Gila’s depth and breadth instantly impresses upon the visitor what the west once was like. You right away get the feel that there’s nothing civilized or man made anywhere nearby and I felt an expansive, wild stirring inside re-kindling my childhood fantasies of Cochise, Geronimo, Victorio and the un-tameness of Apacheria. It truly feels like in every direction, the wilderness goes on endlessly.
The other thing that kept the Gila from the early expansion of western civilization was the Apache.
Considered by many scholars to be the greatest guerilla warfighters of all time, the Apache were no stranger to warfare when the whites arrived. Fighting Mexicans for more than 150 years honed their warrior skillsets and upon arrival, the whites found a formidable foe.
The Apache kept the mountains of the southwest fairly empty of expansionism for a long long time, and every time people would try to settle, the wily Apache would find new and ingenious ways of routing them. This kept the miners at bay for a long time. Eventually though, the Apaches were subjugated. Not by the wiles of the white settlers, but by the ‘tamed’ Apaches, and finally prospectors could comb the mountainous regions of the southwest finding nothing of value in the Gila worth building the roads and towns that came with every gold rush.
The Gila was traditionally the territory of the Chihene Apache, one of the several bands that were lumped under the name Chiricahau as time went on.
Regardless, this land is wide open and largely empty today. A perfect stronghold and core territory for a native species that was almost extirpated.
The Mexican Grey Wolf, also known as el lobo, was the first wolf in the Americas. DNA evidence points to el lobo being the first wolf across Beringia. Following Caribou, Musk Ox, Mastodon and others, between 70,000 and 23,000 years ago, those first wolves came into North America and spread widely, colonizing the whole of the North American continent.
Originally, the larger Beringian Wolf inhabited the Beringian land bridge and what is now Alaska and the Yukon probably keeping out the smaller Wolves that came later. At some point in the Late Pleistocene for an unknown reason, the Beringian Wolf went extinct. This apparently opened up the way for the smaller possibly more adaptable Wolves that we’re familiar with.
The first one to make the journey Was the Mexican. This adaptable small wolf wasted no time in spreading across the continent and had a good foothold here until the (now extinct) Great Planes Wolf moved into the country and pushed the Mexican Wolves southward. The GPW was larger, with bigger and stouter skulls and was adapted to life on the plains. Also called the Buffalo Wolf, it was said by Native Americans that any 3 of the GPW could kill any sized Bison with no help. These and other Wolves (including the lobo) from the Late Pleistocene had shorter legs than the current Grey Wolves and one
theory as to why that was is that there were other slower prey animals in those times and the wolves who lived off these early herds of Pleistocene megafauna didn’t need the longer legs and greater speed of the Grey Wolf of the Holocene. Whatever the reasons, they and other long extinct Holocene Wolves pushed el lobo south where they stayed, before going extinct themselves. By this time, European humans were here and bound and determined to finish the job of Wolf extinction until thankfully, some environmentally minded folks came up with the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
In 1976, el lobo was listed and an aggressive plan was written and implemented. Between 1977-1980, the last remaining wild Mexican Grey Wolves were captured in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico and put into a captive breeding program.
There are now around 400 living Mexican Grey’s spread out over more than 45 zoos and recovery/breeding facilities in the U.S. and Mexico, including 163 living wild. So, I can say that (so far), the recovery efforts have been successful and the numbers are climbing. In fact, in the last 2 years, the wild and free-living wolves have increased their numbers by 30! That’s positive news if you’re a Wolf lover.
Not if you’re a rancher.
At least that’s the sentiment I’ve been hearing. It seems that el lobo like easy to kill prey and their territories are surrounded by and inundated with cows, sheep, and goats, making wolf/human conflict more the norm than the exception. I talked to one rancher in the area of the Gila and I was told “we don’t need no wolves around here, we have animals”. She was referring to the chickens and goats her and her husband had on their hobby farm. I was surprised. When I asked them about el lobo, I was half expecting an open accepting attitude. I guess I naively thought that since the wolf was still teetering on extinction, and this was the last place on earth where they could potentially retain a tiny population, that people would be progressively informed, educated, and aware of the situation.
What I found surprised me. Instead of a people concerned with the wellbeing of the wildlife of their area, they were worried about their milk goats and their ‘rancher’ way of life.
This is the common antiquated rancher mindset anywhere that you go in this country that’s rural. The old ‘us against them’ mindset of euro-western-civilization. If it threatens our livelihood, kill it. If it eats our goat, kill it. Eats a chicken, kill it.
This is a fairly out of date way of thinking and if we want to become Britain, with no wolves and little wild lands supporting wildlife, we just need to keep up the status quo. In Britain the most likely animal for a human to be killed by is the cow, and this may be where America is headed in the long run.
Me, I like to see wildlife. I love to get out and interact. Go tracking. Hunting. Photographing.
I like that there’s still places in the world where I need to pay attention because there are dangerous wild animals. I like that there are places where your calf might get killed and eaten by wolves. But these places are slowly going away, and the Mexican Wolf is a potential canary in the coal mine. It’s a species that’s got limited land to spread to, and its numbers are low. Could a disease like Parvo go through and kill them all off in a single fell swoop? (I’ve since learned that all the captive and wild bred wolves caught are immunized for rabies, parvo and distemper. The same shots domestics get).
There are creative ways of protecting livestock in wolf country. Not everything works. Some of these experimental methods are costly and not every rancher wants the extra headache of trying them. The old tried and true methods of extermination are ingrained and easy. It also gives ranchers a challenge. An enemy. Something to pit themselves against in the ever-going battle that they still see as settling the west. I half think that ranchers would be bored if they didn’t have predators to go after.
One creative method that I recently heard of in wolf country is what are called “range riders”. These are not your typical cowboys. Well maybe they are, but they don’t have the same jobs cowboys used to. These guys and gals ride and camp with the herds and keep a human presence on the landscape keeping wolves from getting after the cows. Or, if a wolf pack kills a cow, these range riders chase them off and do their best to haze them non-lethally, hoping to ‘train’ the wolves to leave livestock alone.
The challenge here is that a cowboy is going to charge a hefty fee to be out on the range all the time camping and living that lifestyle. Also, it takes a particular person to spend lots of time alone and ranchers don’t want to be paying a crew of these range riders as that would get awfully expensive fast.
El lobo is the smallest wolf. With the average weight being between 50-80 lbs., it stands from 24-32 inches tall. This is smaller than the Grey Wolf, who runs around 75-110 lbs. and stands up to several inches taller than their southern counterparts.
Given their smaller size, they can easily be mistaken for coyotes and for this reason, are sometimes ‘mistakenly’ shot. Adding to the confusion, the coloring of el lobo is more resembling a coyote. They sometimes have a reddish tint and the hair across their shoulders and back is often darker than the rest of their bodies making some of them at least, very similar looking to a coyote.
See, it’s completely legal to shoot any coyote you see and its common practice in rural America. The rationale is usually “well, I’m protecting wildlife (or stock) (or children)”. This gives ranchers an easy excuse to shoot a wolf and call it a coyote. Never mind that coyotes are small prey specialists and sustain themselves mostly on mice, rats, and voles. Sure, they eat a baby deer from time to time and I suppose that’s reason enough to kill one. At least in some forms of thinking. Also never mind that coyotes are wildlife themselves.
I was watching some promotional videos from the organization calling themselves “Stop the Wolf”. It espouses a wolf free landscape and portrays wolves as indiscriminate killers viciously making their way from ranch-to-ranch slaying cattle wantonly.
Now, there are ranchers that are negatively affected. One woman interviewed had lost some 19 cows and 1 horse to wolf kills in about a year. That’s a huge effect. She went on to say that they’re waiting for federal money to replace the livestock. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000. The horse that they lost was a family pet, even a member of their family (as she put it), it was that loved. So, suffice it to say, a huge loss to her and her children. Both emotional and financial.
From this and other information, I’ve discovered that there’s a federal program to pay ranchers for their losses in wolf re-introduction areas. The problems are numerous in this system though. For one, it has to be proven that a wolf made the kill. This involves having a county inspector come look for a determination. At this point, it can’t be called a wolf kill until a now federal inspector comes back with the county person and the two-person team determines (and agrees) that it’s a wolf kill. For another, once this determination is made, my understanding is that still, many don’t get their checks. Or it comes three years later. A ridiculously top-heavy bureaucratic system that does more to piss off ranchers than to appease them.
Much easier to just shoot wolves, which is also legal to do if you can prove (after the fact) that you caught said wolf in the act of hurting or killing your livestock.
The ‘accidental’ “I thought it was a coyote” is the easiest method currently to get rid of a wolf/stock problem.
Another method I’ve heard talked about is the old tried and true shoot, shovel, and shut-up method. Basically, to kill a wolf, bury it, and don’t tell anyone about it and this is probably the most common.
Once a depredation on a ranch happens and ranchers get sent through the federal ringer, they quickly learn that to deal with the government is a circus that no one wants any part of, and they often times then take the issue into their own hands. And I don’t blame them. Anyone who’s dealt with the DMV or the IRS has gotten a glimpse into the frustrating world of the federal government. And the wolf depredation pay-out program might be one of the worst.
When the Mexican Wolf was first reintroduced in 1996, every wild wolf was a captive bred and raised wolf. This got the program off to a rocky start at best, as these wolves were habituated to humans and had no fear of them. The lobos even had an unnatural curiosity towards them which caused lots of wolf/human/livestock conflicts making the program appear like a bad idea from the get go.
Slowly in time, this has changed some. Now all the wild Mexican Wolves are wild born and this certainly slowed down the rate of depredation. Now wolves are implicated less and less as their natural fear of being near humans keeps them farther from ranches and trouble.
This isn’t to say that the problem is solved, but it has, and continues to abate.
People on both sides of the issue tend to get passionate about the debate and that further muddies the waters of the introduction and protection of these native animals.
One argument for changing how we as a culture deal with depredations is this:
“If you had a cat, and it went out into the road and got ran over by a truck, you wouldn’t go out, track down that truck driver, and kill him.” No, you’d get another cat and figure out some creative way to try to keep the cat out of the road.
But the above scenario is exactly the way we treat depredation in this country. If a wolf or mountain lion kills your goat, its chased down and killed. Or at least an attempt is made to do so.
This antiquated system doesn’t work unless you remove all the potential predators from the world. And that’s exactly what many people want. Wolves removed from the land, so this is where the issue becomes a bit philosophical. We need to ask ourselves, “do we want predators in our world?”
Many people would answer the above question with a yes, and many with a no and both sides of the issue are passionate making this a very polarizing topic.
Our first day really hiking in the wilds of the Gila, we left our camp early and planned to be gone most of the day. We were going to pick a ridge heading up, to try to make our way to a far, high ridge we could see from camp. We at this point were looking to find some mountain lion tracks and sign and the far ridge looked to me like a potential travel route for a resident male lion. Off we went and after a couple of hours of climbing through the sparse pinion, juniper and ponderosa forests we realized that we’d have to drop into a high valley to cross onto the ridge we wanted to get to. We had come way up a feeder ridge but couldn’t continue as it got too steep and rocky for us to pass.
We dropped off into the canyon down a steep fluffy red dirt hillside into the deep canyon bottom finding a nice flat-bottomed gutter and decided straight down was the best way to proceed until we could find a way out and up the other side.
Within a quarter mile we found a spot where a low ridge came into the canyon on the far side that created a natural funnel for wildlife passing from one ridge to the other and here, we found our first mountain lion sign. It wasn’t fresh, but it was clearly a lion scrape and was in the logical spot as here was the deer tracks and trails. This lion was scent marking on his (probably) regular route through his territory traveling where the deer travel. This is a common behavior and once you figure out where to look or, where lions travel, it’s not that hard to find their sign.
Here the canyon sort of dished out, subtly flattening and creating a much more traversable landscape and, the wildlife movement reflected this. We noticed right away hare and deer tracks, movement trails and feeding sign. We split up and I went down the left side of the gutter and Abel and Sue were flanking me on the right-side scanning for tracks and sign. I got a bit out in front of them and the canyon started to bottle-neck so I dropped into the ditch and planned on meeting them on the other side so we could begin our ascent the rest of the way up to the far ridge. Which was getting much closer by now as we had come 3 miles or so.
As soon as I hit the ditch, I noticed in the soft sand of the wash a track that at first, I thought was a lion track. It was about the right size and close enough in shape to catch my eye.
Often when I see a track that is old and/or doesn’t have the detail necessary for a positive ID, I’ll immediately start walking and looking for others. And, as Abel and Sue were still up-ditch from me, I just started walking toward them knowing there would probably be more of these tracks, hopefully giving me more info towards a positive identification.
When I heard Sue give a holler, I knew they had found some good tracks and assumed it was the (assumed) lion I had seen the track of before, so I hustled in their direction. I walked up-ditch to them and looked down and immediately saw a wolf track! This was a big surprise to me.
Now, I’ve been looking at animal tracks my whole life. And, I’ve been studying them with a fervor for a couple decades, and one of the things that has taught me a bunch, is canine tracks. My tracking buddies and I are ever arguing dog vs. wolf vs. coyote vs. fox. Wild vs. domestic, and on and on. This has and does constantly keep me on my edge of looking deep and finding the subtle differences between the species, ever honing my skill and fine tuning my ‘at a glance’ tracking.
Right away this track looked to me like a wolf track. And the criteria are extensive. I’ll share a glimpse into our process.
-It was bigger than your average dog. A lot bigger
-The only dogs with tracks that big are a few breeds like great Dane, Irish Wolfhound, some Mastiffs etc. and these types of dogs aren’t normally on hikes way into the mountains
-No hound tracks are that big
-We were in a very remote area
-After following the trail, we could see that it moved extremely athletically
-The tracks showed that the foot was clean, symmetrical and athletic. Characteristics of a wild canid
-It was heavily clawed like a wolf (domestics are heavily clawed also, but the claws usually are deeply impressed into the substrate whereas a wolf’s claw marks are usually at a bit of a higher plane)
-A dog walks more on the heel pad of their feet than a wild canid who walks more on their toes (some characteristics like this take looking at a bunch of tracks before being able to make a judgement)
-Typically, a domestic is super heavy for the size of their feet. In other words, a domestic with a wolf sized foot will outweigh a wolf by a whole bunch (maybe 60 lbs!) and this is often reflected in their tracks
We discovered a horse trail not too far down the ditch from where we found the wolf track, putting a bit of doubt into our theory, as this could signify a way a dog came into this remote area, so we kept investigating.
-There were dog tracks near the horse trail, and, they were all much smaller
-The wolf tracks veered off from the ditch before it reached the horse trail
-The dog tracks predictably stayed near the horse trail, following along with
-We never again saw the wolf track as it stayed away from the horse trail
It’s challenging sometimes to be sure of what you’re seeing in the woods. This is what makes a good tracker highly sought after. It’s just someone who’s seen so many tracks of any kind in about every possible presentation that they can recognize a pattern even in a highly obscure track. Sometimes just a smudge can be recognizable. I many times have found a mountain lion track by just spotting a single lion toe. While driving. They are distinct enough to recognize in this way. Sometimes.
So, after much consideration and debate, we moved on. All of us feeling pretty good that what we had seen was a Mexican Wolf track. I was probably the most skeptical as I strive to keep an open and transparent mind and process, and I know how easily the mind can get locked into a theory. Especially one that I’m biased towards. I was feeling about 65-75% that it was indeed el lobos’ tracks, and was pretty confident in that.
I still had some doubt though and wanted to learn more. One thing that stood out was that the animal was alone. At least that’s how things appeared according to the info we could gather. It’s not unusual for a wolf to travel alone by any means, but it’s also highly likely that they will be traveling in a pair or a pack. Just something to add to our hypothesis. Not really weighting it one way or another, but to consider.
We still had hardly done any research and had no idea if it were likely for us to see wolf sign anywhere near where we were. Another reason for me to stay open. It wasn’t until I got home that I was able to do more research and that’s how this story came to be. Here’s what I gleaned:
-It turns out that we were directly in the middle of Mexican Wolf territory and where we were was right about the spot where three known packs’ territories meet, making it highly likely.
-The exact area that we were has been used for a location to drop ‘problem’ animals who are being relocated and in the recent past, numerous single animals have been dropped there.
-There are over 40 Mexican Grey Wolf packs established in the south western US.
-We were right near a natural crossing for deer making it a prime area for a wolf to hunt (as well as mountain lion judging from the sign we found there.)
My research, including information gleaned from maps and scientific studies, has brought me up to about 85-90% sure that we were indeed looking at tracks of a predator whose ancestors came across Beringia perhaps 70,000 years ago, who colonized the whole continent before being pushed south by larger, stronger wolves, and who were driven to the absolute edge of extinction by humans before being saved (at least for the moment) by federal wildlife regulations and many people concerned for them. A predator who still faces extinction if some have their way.
Like most wildlife projects, especially ones involving large predators, this is a complex issue. There are no easy answers and emotions often run high.
I guess we need to ask ourselves: Do we want to live in a world with wolves?
Much has been written about the wolf. There aren’t many animals who inspire such passion in humans. From deep respect to racist-like hatred to flowery admiration, people in the northern hemisphere have strong opinions about wolf, our largest wild canid. It’s not my first choice to write about such a polarized topic, but Wisconsin just opened a wolf hunting season during which more than 200 wolves were killed, and I feel compelled to speak.
On February 22, 2021, hunters in the Northwoods were armed with everything from black powder, to bolt action, to assault-type rifles, hoping to get a shot at the elusive predator.
Their logic is myriad. “We’re trying to save deer. Livestock. Pets. (Human) Babies.” Some pro-wolf hunters use accusations to incite deep emotional reactions in whoever will listen, charged statements designed to incite conflict, reminiscent of schoolyard bullies. “Do you want a wolf to kill your baby!?”
The underlying message: we are afraid. Wolves are an easy target for the fears of the ignorant. I don’t mean stupid; I mean uneducated about the topic. When your childhood stories include such myths as “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the wolf is big, bad, and brimming with murderous intent, it’s easy to have the wrong idea about the realities of our wildlife. The cultural story of good vs. evil is in our movies, our books, and our fairy tales. It’s Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader ad infinitum. Everywhere the wolf is vilified. The forever bad guy. And what does the hero do to the bad guy? The hero kills the villain violently and righteously, saving the innocent.
On the other hand, I know of a hunter who would never think of killing a wolf. He admires them and appreciates the job that wolves do for the landscape and its animals. He says that wolves on the land are a sign of a healthy environment and that to remove them would throw the whole system out of balance. He says it could cause a top-down collapse.
The ‘environmentalists’ have varying perspectives, too, from believing they share a spirit with wolves and deeply appreciating the lives of these animals, to thinking that wolves could survive as benevolent vegans (reflected by people who feed their dogs vegetarian diets), a sentiment more in line with fantasy than reality.
Some anti-wolf hunt groups put out information about the hunt that is rife with name calling and insults, reflecting the anger and intolerance of the writer more than anything else. I understand the urge to fight for what you love and care for, and yet, their words alienate and create drama, inflaming the topic and making the rift between the sides deeper, harder to cross.
Day one of the hunt.
It’s 7:30 a.m. Monday the 22 of Feb 2021. Opening day of the Wisconsin wolf hunt. Overnight we’ve had around 2 inches of powder fresh snow covering our existing foot of depth with a velvety soft powder that no wolf could move over without leaving obvious sign for all to see. Conditions are perfect. Ideal. Unless you’re a wolf.
My understanding of wolf hunting is by observation and hearsay mixed with my own experiences of hunting coyotes as a young person and topped by reading articles on the subject.
It starts like this:
A hunter drives around and looks for a wolf and upon spotting one, jumps out of their truck and shoots said wolf. That’s the best-case scenario for a wolf hunter. Yet, this isn’t the most productive method here in the Northwoods as most of the ground is covered with forests, and it’s quite rare to see a wolf while driving. If you do, it’s most likely a quick glimpse while the animal is crossing the road, not allowing time for a hunter to stop the vehicle, climb out, take aim, and get off a good shot before the wolf disappears into the woods.
Other methods are a bit more involved, but don’t require much, if any, more skill as an outdoorsman.
One is the game call. A predator like a wolf can hardly resist the electronic screams of a wounded deer or some other such prey in distress. Many game calls come with 100 calls on them and the ability to get up to 1000 more, giving hunters an advantage without requiring them to possess any skill. To use one of these calls, a hunter sets it in the woods and presses a button on a remote to activate it, then waits for a hungry predator. For a bit of contrast, when I was a boy learning to hunt turkeys, we made our own calls out of the lower leg bones of a turkey and spent hundreds of hours trying to perfect our skills at calling them in.
Another hunting method is hounds. Now, I’m trying to make sense of this as it’s a complex topic. I’ve been hearing for years now that bear hunters don’t want wolves around because wolves will hunt down and kill bear dogs. And yet, they use hounds to run wolves?
During the fall bear season, wolves are still using rendezvous sites because their pups are young. A rendezvous site is the place where the pups hang out during the day whilst their pack (or parents) are hunting. The pups at this point (around 8 weeks) have outgrown their dens and have been moved to a prominent spot deep in the wolves’ territory where they spend their time growing into young adults. The preference of a pack is to have a babysitter stay with the young wolves. These babysitters can be a parent or an aunt or uncle (or another wolf from another pack who has joined) and tend to be very tolerant nurturers. They play and protect the little ones while they grow and oftentimes rely on food brought back by the wolves who are out hunting. As well, the pups are fed by other members of the pack who bring back loads of meat in their stomachs to be regurgitated for the pups.
Hunters say (and it makes sense to me) that during the fall bear hunt, during this time when the pups are vulnerable, the adult wolves are much more protective and prone to attacking hounds who get close to rendezvous sites. It’s this time of year that hounds are potentially in danger.
In the winter, the pups are not staying in rendezvous sites, and it seems hounds aren’t in nearly as much danger as in the fall.
So, a hunter drives along looking for a fresh wolf track. They aren’t looking for a pack, just an individual and they want to turn the hounds loose on these loners as that’s the safest bet for the hounds. They’ll turn their hounds on the trail and watch their dogs, via gps tracking collars, to see where to ‘head them off.’ Hunters will drive around these blocks of forest lands and be waiting when the wolf comes into a road where they oftentimes will be shot. If this method fails, hunters will sometimes catch their dogs when they cross at these funnel points and turn fresh dogs onto the trail. This way, the wolf never gets to rest and constantly has dogs chasing it. Eventually, the dogs will overtake the exhausted animal and again, using their gps tracking computers, hunters will hike into where their dogs have the wolf bayed up, and shoot it.
However these hunters decide to hunt, the first step is to locate wolves and this is done by looking for tracks (or live animals). Once fresh sign is found, the hunting methods mentioned are employed as well as variations. So, opening day 2021 doesn’t bode well for wolves. The fresh snow and warmer weather make perfect conditions for hunters and we’ll see how it goes. Energy has been building and we’ve seen a lot of hunters in the last few days driving around looking for wolf sign.
Wolves have a deep and rich social life that humans barely understand. We call them packs when in fact, they are families.
The word ‘pack,’ to me, has a bit of a negative even derogatory connotation so I decided to do a little research. It turns out that the word pack is derived probably from the 13th century Low Germanic word “pak” meaning bundle or package. It became a word used to describe a grouping of things and at some point, in the late 14th century was used as a “grouping of people of low character” (notice the negative connotation). Later in the mid-15th century, it began being used as ‘a group of instinctively herding hunting animals,’ the way we’re using it now for social predators.
These family units, or packs, evolve to fit their landscape niche perfectly. They don’t, as most humans imagine, breed and eat until their prey collapses, putting them into a population pendulum swing towards extinction. They instead, come into balance with their natural environment and, at the same time, bring their natural environment into balance.
When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone after a 75-year absence, the overpopulated prey provided them with an incredible smorgasbord. The pack size quickly swelled to more than 20 animals in some cases, exactly what was called for in the over-browsed and over-grazed landscape. Within a short time, this chronically over-eaten land began to heal, and birds, insects, and mammals that the land had long forgotten, were able to again call it home.
Did the wolves then eat themselves into starvation?
Quite the contrary. The pack dynamics quickly balanced and the population stabilized via a little-known mechanism. It turns out that 49 percent of wolves in Yellowstone die by other wolves. The intricate social web handles both the breeding/birthing and the dying that needs to happen. The numbers of wolves on the landscape balance out no matter whether they live in desert, mountains, or the Northwoods. Pack size reflects the given landscape’s holding capacity.
In the western mountains of Yellowstone and surrounding areas of big, wide open country and big animals, pack sizes average larger as it takes a larger pack to kill a buffalo, for instance. In Yellowstone, the pack size averages 10 animals in comparison with our 4-5 Wisconsin wolves. This is a reflection of the landscape type and prey dynamics as well as other things, like human killing pressure, which has an effect that largely goes unreported and hence, unknown.
One thing we do know. When humans start killing wolves, it’s almost never done with knowledge of the effects to the pack structure and dynamics. It’s not every wolf that can be an alpha. It’s especially not every wolf that can be a good alpha. A good alpha wolf is hard to come by, and what do we mean by good? Well, everyone has their own interpretation, but here I’ll just say that a good alpha wolf is one that’s calm, nurturing, intelligent, accepting, protective, and good at hunting. Just like with humans, wolves have individual personalities and it takes a certain type of person to be a good leader. What qualities do you, the reader consider good for leadership?
When a hunter kills an alpha, even in a larger pack, sometimes the pack disintegrates, wreaking havoc on the landscape. When an unruly juvenile causes trouble, a mature alpha (female or male) oftentimes would be the one to straighten them out.
We’ve all heard about wolves killing livestock. In wolf country, if there’s a pack that’s staying away from farm animals, then the last thing a rancher should do is to kill a wolf. A pack that doesn’t kill livestock will usually continue to not do so and to accidently kill the alpha of a pack like this can send the whole countryside into trouble as the younger wolves without good leadership will probably begin killing livestock.
This is an example of ranchers causing their own trouble and then blaming wolves. We see the same issues in mountain lion country. Often someone will kill a lion out of fear and then depredations all of a sudden start as a young, inexperienced cat or wolf finds ranch animals.
Now, of course, this isn’t the only scenario. Many times, depredations start out of the blue and these legitimate claims need to be handled differently than the above situation. I’m just saying that if we pay attention, we can do a lot better and a lot less damage in the world.
I doubt if there’s a hunter in the woods today, who would know if they’re killing a pack leader. And, I think that some are trying to do just that. Most of what I read about hunters trying to kill wolves is that they’re hoping to kill the biggest one they can. Often, the alpha. Hunters are going after wolves ill-equipped, misinformed, and ignorant of what they’re doing and how they’re affecting wild nature. And how would a prospective wolf hunter know which member of a pack they’re killing?
The more I look at the subject, the more I’m having a hard time calling a wolf hunt a ‘hunt,’ or a wolf hunter a ‘hunter.’
I grew up a hunter. I come from a hunting family. To me, hunting is about survival and honoring animals, and about respectfully getting our needs met partially from the land immediately around us. It’s about relationship and perspective and adaptation to the environment and it’s needs.
A ‘sport hunt’ to me is ridiculous. A wolf hunt is asinine. I can barely stomach calling this a hunt. It’s more a killing. A culling. Murder. It reflects more the ignorance and/or latent hatred in the hunters.
The amount of energy and care a wolf family puts into raising just one of their pups is phenomenal. A wolf is not considered an adult until 2-3 years of age and the careful feeding, tutelage, protection and rearing of the young is a massive project. Combined with the generations it takes for wolves to work out and establish territories as well as the coming into balance with their prey, for a human to come in with some high-tech gadget and wantonly kill one of the young (or even worse a mature adult), the havoc on the landscape is immeasurable. All so someone can high-five their buddy and feed their fragile egos?
The Tribe put out an official statement, and in all the smoke of inflamed politicized emotions, name calling and finger pointing, the Tribe’s voice is one of balance and reason. I’m including the majority of their statement below as it’s said better than I can paraphrase. This was today:
Ma’iingan (my-ing-gaahn) is the Anishinaabe word for wolf. Wolves are revered as relatives in the Ojibwe lifeway. Ma’iingan serves as a clan icon – a representation of traditional governance and organization within the community.
“We are extremely disappointed with the recent decisions and we petition the State and Natural Resources Board to follow both sound and current science and follow the co-management framework laid out in the LCO v. Wisconsin [or Voigt] case,” said Voigt Intertribal Task Force Chairman John Johnson. “We are growing tired of the lack of tribal consultation on issues that directly impact our sovereign nations.”
Federal court decisions require the state to coordinate management with the plaintiff tribes in the LCO v. Wisconsin case and consult them on decisions that impact their treaty-reserved rights in treaty-ceded territories.
The controversial season begins today and ends February 28th. The “harvest” is occurring in the absence of an updated management plan, without the required input of tribes with treaty-reserved rights, and in violation of agreements made in the LCO case. It is also occurring in the absence of buffer zones around each reservation that would help safeguard packs that live partially on reservation – packs that tribes have worked hard to protect. To many Ojibwe communities, hunting in late February, a time when fur quality is poor and wolves are in their breeding season, is regarded as especially wasteful and disrespectful.”
My hope is that they’ll be respected and listened to and that we can deepen our relationships to each other and Brother Wolf.