CAMP RIPLEY (AP) — Brian Dirks stands on a gravel road lined with dense forest, a radio antenna in his outstretched hand.
He punches the frequency of his target into a receiver hanging from a strap over his shoulder, aims the antenna toward an overgrown swamp and listens, ignoring the low booms of artillery fire in the distance.
For a few minutes, nothing. Then Dirks hears what he’s been waiting for: a faint but distinct sound that tells him the young male gray wolf is nearby. With a couple of readings, a compass and a map, Dirks can use simple geometry to pinpoint the wolf’s exact location.
A Humvee rumbles by, and Dirks steps to the side of the road to let it pass. Here, working with and around the military is a way of life.
The research began 16 years ago after gray wolves were first spotted in Camp Ripley near Little Falls, the St. Cloud Times reports.
The 53,000-acre military training facility is also a wildlife refuge. Although some areas are heavily used for troop training, much of its vast forests, swamps and hills have little, if any, human activity.
This is the southern edge of the range for gray wolves, which were hunted, trapped and poisoned until fewer than 700 remained in Minnesota by the 1970s. In 1974, they were federally protected as an endangered species.
Since then, wolves have made a steady comeback. Wolf tracks were first discovered at Camp Ripley in 1993, and pup sightings were reported soon after.
Federal officials wanted to know how the protected wolves were affected by military exercises, and whether training activities would need to be restricted. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Military Affairs began funding the Department of Natural Resources to capture some of the wolves, fit them with radio collars and release them so they can be monitored and tracked.
The study has provided researchers with valuable knowledge about the size of the packs, how far wolves travel and how they coexist with humans.
Since the start of the study, 41 of Camp Ripley’s wolves have been captured and collared, although few are still alive. Researchers are currently monitoring four collared wolves.
In January, gray wolves near the western Great Lakes were removed from the federal endangered species list. The DNR adopted a plan to manage the wolf population in Minnesota and is working out details for a hunting season this fall that will allow 400 wolves to be harvested. Wolf hunting won’t be allowed at Camp Ripley, but the animals sometimes leave the camp’s borders.
The recovery of gray wolves is good news for the researchers who have spent years studying the animals’ movements. They say the focus of the Camp Ripley wolf study might change, but its importance won’t diminish.
“The program’s really been successful,” said Jay Brezinka, Camp Ripley’s environmental supervisor.
The Camp Ripley program isn’t the largest research study of gray wolves, or even the lengthiest. Researchers have studied the wolves on Isle Royale for more than 50 years, Mech noted.
Still, the study has provided valuable insight into how wolves live, die and can co-exist with humans, the scientists say. It’s also confirmed the importance of large tracts of undeveloped land as habitat for wolves, Mech said.
“Any kind of wild areas that are large enough to sustain wolves become reservoirs for them, and it helped establish the population in the area,” he said.
The study has generated publicity over the years, including a National Geographic crew that filmed footage about the wolves last year for a documentary about the Mississippi River. The researchers occasionally have allowed the media and even school groups to observe a capture, when they tranquilize the wolves to check their health or replace their collars.
Still, misconceptions about the study persist. Some people think the DNR is responsible for planting the wolves at Camp Ripley, Dirks said, rather than just monitoring them.
However, there have been very few complaints from nearby landowners about the wolves killing livestock or pets. Dirks speculates that’s because with plenty of deer on the refuge, there’s little need for the wolves to seek food elsewhere.
With the de-listing of wolves comes a shift in the program, but it won’t be the end of the study.
The federal government wants to continue to monitor the progress of the wolves’ recovery and the impact of de-listing for the next five years. Because they won’t be actively hunted, the Ripley packs will serve as a sort of control group for researchers to compare to wolves in areas where hunting is allowed, Dirks said.
Having collared wolves will be of value in helping researchers understand the interaction between hunters and wolves and how easy or difficult it is to shoot one, Mech said.
After the five years is up, the focus probably will shift to studying another plant or animal — possibly red-shouldered hawks or Blanding’s turtles, Dirks said. Studies on black bears and fishers are already under way.
The researchers at Camp Ripley already are looking ahead and hoping for similar success.
“It provides us another opportunity to target another species,” Brezinka said.