CAMP RIPLEY -- Minnesota's timber wolves are doing better today than at any time since humans came here en masse in the 19th century. While wolves are endangered in other states their status has been upgraded to threatened in Minnesota.
Locally, the timber wolves in Camp Ripley are also thriving. It's estimated that 10 to 12 wolves live in the 54,000-acre military reservation in Morrison County. Their vitality was confirmed recently when DNR biologists determined the Ripley pack has split into two. The older, established pack remains in the northern part of the reservation while a male and female, both about 2 years old, have made a home in the south and are expected to breed this spring.
This information was gathered Jan. 30-31 when five wolves were captured by helicopter net as part of the ongoing Camp Ripley wolf study. Three of the wolves were recaptures and two were females that had never been captured.
Of the recaptures, one was the alpha female of the north pack, one was the alpha male of the north pack and one was a 2-year-old male from the south pack.
Minutes after the female wolf was brought to the study site it was outfitted with a radio collar that allows the study team to track its movements for the next three years. (Dispatch Photo by Vince Meyer)
The alpha female was first captured in 1999 and at that time was fitted with a traditional VHF collar. The battery life on VHF collars is about three years, so the study team wanted to re-collar the animal before the battery died and her whereabouts were lost.
"The alpha female usually is the wolf that breeds in a pack," said Brian Dirks, animal survey coordinator in the Camp Ripley Environmental Office. "It's important to know where she is at denning time in order to estimate pup numbers."
The two males were captured last fall with leg-hold traps and fitted with VHF collars. In the recent capture both were fitted with satellite collars in order to track their movements on and off Camp Ripley.
Two new females were captured: a 2-year-old female from the south pack and a 3-year-old from the north pack.
The sedative used to calm this wolf while it was being collared wore off. Slowly the wolf got to its feet and got its bearings. Soon it disappeared into the Ripley woods. Usually it takes a captured wolf about 24 hours -- sometimes less -- to rejoin the pack. (Dispatch Photo by Vince Meyer)
"Both animals should provide excellent research opportunities," Dirks said. "The younger female was found with a younger male at the south end of Camp. This might be the start of a new pack of breeding wolves. Having both the male and female collared will enable us to find their den."
The older female was found with the north pack's alpha male and female and likely is the omega, or subordinate, wolf in the pack. She might serve as the designated "baby-sitter" for the pups. In a normal year a female wolf in her prime will have from four to six pups.
Could Camp Ripley one day support three distinct wolf packs?
"I don't think so," said Julie DeJong, a DNR research biologist who assists Dirks on the wolf study. "The packs are already overlapping. Territories usually don't overlap that much."
DNR research biologist Glenn Del Giudice awaited the delivery of a whitetail deer captured during the most recent phase of the DNR's ongoing whitetail deer study. The study aims to track deer movement from summer to winter, paying special attention to how deer use jackpine woods for thermal cover in winter ranges. (Dispatch Photo by Vince Meyer)
Wolves were first seen in Camp Ripley in 1994, DeJong said. Of the 20 animals collared since 1996, 10 have died. Causes range from vehicular accidents to shootings and poisonings.
"The surrounding landscape is a hostile environment at this time," DeJong said. "There is still a lot of animosity towards wolves. Some people shoot them thinking they're coyotes."
Research has revealed interesting movements by the Camp Ripley wolves. In 1999 one male traveled 2,5000 miles in a loop that took him to near Green Bay, Wis., and back to Ripley. Other wolves have shown no fear of military operations, even moving closer to training regimens when the National Guard guns are booming.
In a related study, 20 whitetail does and one buck were captured by helicopter nets. The does were outfitted with radio collars as part of a study that aims to determine the importance of jackpine to wintering deer.
The buck was a 2-year-old male (4 points) that was fitted with a special GPS collar that will expand as the buck's neck grows during the rut. Last year the Ripley study team outfitted a buck in January with a similar collar only to see it tear off five months later, dashing any hopes of monitoring the deer's movements during the rut.
This year's buck wears a different collar of more durable material that hopefully will not tear off. The collar will track the location of the animal and store the information in the collar. Later the collar will be released from the buck via electronic signal and be retrieved by the study team.
Before last year's buck lost his collar he was known to have spent January through March in Camp Ripley. In April he moved to cornfields south of the reservation and remained there until May, when he moved back into Ripley. In June he lost his collar.
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