Wolf 101A pack of lessons from the North Woods of Minnesota
ELY, Minn. -- On an unusually hot morning in northern Minnesota, Shadow, Malik, Maya and Grizzer are lazily roaming around their outdoor quarters. The foursome with the distinctive names are wolves -- two grayish-brown Great Plains wolves and two white arctic wolves, both subspecies of the gray wolf -- and they are the star inhabitants of the International Wolf Center.
This attractive town, hard by the Canadian border, is best known as the jumping off place for trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. But in recent years it also has become known as the home of this handsome center, which proclaims itself as the world's premier wolf interpretive facility. It was founded on the belief that co-existence with the controversial predators is possible when people are presented facts about the wolves. Its mission is to support the survival of the wolf around the world by teaching about wolves, their relationship to where they live and the role of humans in their future.
Recently, the center took on added significance in light of controversial moves by the federal government. In January, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was "delisting" the gray wolf in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. Three animal advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the plan, alleging that the wolf essentially remains endangered in the three states. The Fish and Wildlife Service is also conducting hearings on removing the gray wolf from its list in the northern Rocky Mountain states.
"The wolf is at a crossroads," says Walter Medwid, executive director of the International Wolf Center. "The decision to delist places wolves' survival more in the hands of the public than in recent years. As a society we persecuted wolves, then we protected them. What's next? As states relax some protections, will we tolerate wolves or kill as many as the new laws allow?"
The center attracts about 45,000 visitors annually, and on this particular day, license plates on cars in the parking lot include those from Texas, Florida and Illinois. The International Wolf Center has more than 10,000 members in 50 states and 38 countries.
The current pack on exhibit -- all born in captive facilities in the Midwest -- consists of Shadow and Malik, two male arctic wolves born in 2000, and Maya (female) and Grizzer (male), Great Plains wolves born in 2004. There are also two old "Retired Pack" members -- Lakota and MacKenzie -- Great Plains wolves born in 1993 who now have their own area. The reason: They were "systematically tested for weakness" by the arctic wolves, who arrived in 2002, and are now peacefully living, out of the sight of the public, and sleeping comfortably in one of the center's perks for geezer wolves: box "houses" complete with straw beds.
On this morning, the animals -- designated by the center as "ambassador wolves" -- seem content to be ambling slowly around or grabbing a snooze or two, rather than going through their other paces, which range from simple howling to enforcing dominant behavior in the pack's "ranking" order.
The center provides detailed information about the individual animals. Maya, for instance, is nearly identical to her brother, Grizzer, and appears somewhat timid when approaching other wolves. She's very adept at predatory behavior, often observed stalking birds or small animals within the enclosure. (If there's a grayish wolf stalking something, it is noted, it's probably Maya.) Also, she's very quick to respond to the actions of fellow pack members -- perhaps, one assumes, because she's the sole female. In contrast, arctic wolf Malik is "very curious, showing little intimidation with strangers, described as easy-going by the staff and can be easily distracted by just about anything."
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of wolves in the U.S. were killed in the lower 48 states, leaving only a few hundred in northern Minnesota. But attitudes began to change, as reflected in the Endangered Species Act of 1973, under which wolves were among those protected.
The International Wolf Center opened a $3 million, 17,000-square-foot facility in 1993. Five years later a 3,260-square-foot addition provided a 120-seat wolf-viewing theater and additional classrooms, storage and lab space. The viewing room features triangular observation windows (designed to represent wolf eyes) looking out into a 1.25-acre, forest-like wolf enclosure and den site -- full of trees, other vegetation and a pond just made for frolicking -- that's home to the resident wolf pack.
For youngsters, there's the Little Wolf's Den, an interactive facility for children aged 3 to 9.
During the day, there are various presentations by staffers -- such as "Wolf 101," "Wolf Communication" and "Beavers and Wolves" -- as well as documentary films. The center also offers a number of educational programs for adults and families. Afternoon, weekend and week-long offerings include radio tracking and snowshoe treks. On one weekend outing, "Wolf Family Rendezvous II," families could howl to the wolves in the nearby Superior National Forest, observe interactive programs like Wolf Ecology (wolf physical adaptations and behavior and pack dynamics) and Animal Signs, as well as participate in such activities as a scavenger hunt. In addition, there are various scientist-taught seminars on such topics as "Wolf Ethology: The Study of Wolf Behavior" and "Moose-Wolf Interactions -- A 1,000 Lb. Dinner."
This particular morning during "Wolf 101," a perky intern is telling the audience such information as the fact that the average annual litter for a gray wolf pack (six to eight members) is four to six pups, that the two arctic wolves are fed garlic pills to help fend off insects (Great Plains wolves have a natural resistance), that wolves are very territorial and have "an amazing sense of smell," that they have skinny legs and large paws (which are used in the winter as snowshoes), and that some of the center's wolves were named through a "Name the Pup" contest in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Wolves in the wild, she continues, feed every 7 to 10 days on moose, beaver, white-tailed deer and snowshoe hare. At the center, the animals are fed only once a week, on Sunday nights. The food is road kill. (The Minnesota state police keep a helpful eye out for it.) The entree the previous Sunday was beaver. "For wolves, it's a feast or famine eating cycle," the intern says. "When they do eat, they consume 20 percent of their weight. Here at the center, if they don't eat all their food, they'll bury it."
The public may observe the dining experience, and the staff takes detailed notes. During one feeding, reported Lori Schmidt, the center's wolf curator, "Malik had possession of food, and Maya came over to food-beg. When Malik started growling and hard muzzle-biting Maya, Shadow immediately came over to show-posture his dominance in front of Malik. While Shadow was occupying Malik's attention, Maya took off with the meat. There was plenty, though, so all got their share." Because the summer heat, even in northern Minnesota, can discourage wolves from eating, she added, the staff "enhanced" the average beaver dinner, putting bacon in the beaver's mouth, then removing the stomach and intestines and replacing them with "unusual treats" -- frozen Cornish game hens, fish, pork sausage.
In late 2006, it was estimated that there were about 900 wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan combined, with more than 3,000 in Minnesota alone -- the largest number in the lower 48. That number includes, of course, a couple of beaver-eating Great Plains individuals popularly known as Maya and Grizzer, and a pair of "retirees" named Lakota and MacKenzie. ---------- Ctcfirstname.lastname@example.org
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IF YOU GO
Ely, Minn., is about 125 miles north of Duluth via Minnesota Highways 61 and 1 -- about a 2-hour, 45-minute drive. Or from Minneapolis/St. Paul, it's about 41/2 hours via Interstate Highway 35, Minnesota Highway 33, U.S. Highway 53 and Minnesota Highway 169.
The International Wolf Center (218-365-4695; www.wolf.org) is just outside Ely at 1396 Minnesota Highway 169. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, May 15-June 14; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, June 15-Sept. 3; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 4-Oct. 14; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 15-May 14. Admission: $7.50, seniors $6.50, $4 ages 3-12, free under 3.
We stayed at the Super 8 Motel (1605 E. Sheridan St.; 218-365-2873), which was fine. Rates start at $79, and it's a nice, reasonable walk to the restaurants and stores in "downtown" Ely (pop. 3,714). The motel is about a mile from the Wolf Center. Other choices range from the modest Motel Ely Budget Host (1047 E. Sheridan St.; 218-365-3237), where rooms also start at $79, to the Grand Ely Resort and Conference Center (400 N. Pioneer Road; 218-365-6565), on Shagawa Lake a little less than a mile from the city center, where rooms range from $109 in the fall to $159 for "summer peak" (June 17 to Sept. 8).
For dinner, a good choice is the Ely Steak House (216 E. Sheridan St.; 218-365-7412); entree prices range from about $12 to $30. Its beer offering include Moose Drool.
Our breakfast pick was the Chocolate Moose (101 N. Central Ave.; 218-363-6343) -- which, to be honest, we chose for its name. But the ample breakfast didn't disappoint; prices are reasonable and the ambience is rustic.
Another popular restaurant is the Northern Grounds Cafe (117 N. Central Ave.; 218-365-2460).
Ely Chamber of Commerce: 800-777-7281; www.ely.org. Also, the town Web site: www.elyminne sota.com.
-- Cliff Terry